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Working with integrators

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Warren Clark investigates the benefits of some of the leading partnership programmes operated by manufacturers and distributors

Experienced vision engineers will be well aware that this is an industry that is rarely satisfied with straightforward off-the-shelf products. Each application is unique, and brings with it unique challenges.

Similarly, with every application, you are faced with numerous choices of products, some of which are very similar. So, how do you go about choosing products and getting the right advice on specifying for an application? For many, the answer lies in joining one of the many partnership programmes operated by manufacturers and distributors.

Such programmes go by many different names – partnership programmes, integrator programmes, preferred installers, vision networks – but essentially, the principle is the same. Sign up, and get better prices and better support.

Mark Williamson oversees the partnership programmes operated by Firstsight Vision. ‘At Firstsight Vision, we run two partnership programmes – one for OEMs (OEM Partnership Programme) and one for integrators (called the Certified Integrator Programme),’ he says. ‘Our OEM programme is focused on giving good customers extra service to make it easier for them to buy from us. Usually, we ask for at least £25k worth of business a year for our standard OEM programme, and at least £100k a year for our OEM Plus programme.

‘The major benefits of this programme are additional discounts on all products. At the top level, we offer our best possible volume price with no need to negotiate each time (so it’s not dependent on volume orders, for example). Also, all our OEM partners’ orders for stock items are on a four-week sale-or-return basis. This means they can try out various combinations of products on specific projects to see which is the best, and then give us back the products that aren’t quite right for them without being charged. This means that our warehouse effectively becomes an extension to their own stockroom.

‘Many OEMs are regular purchasers of the same product line. Where this is the case, we will advance replace any stock item under warranty immediately, on the understanding that the repaired product will be given to them next time they order from that product line. This means they don’t have to wait for repairs each time.

‘We see two types of integrator that can be good customers for us and we want to encourage partnership: integrators that use our vision technology; and integrators that use other vision technology, but require a good source of lighting, lenses, and application advice.

‘For integrators that use our vision systems the Certified Integrator Program is applicable. We have an ongoing marketing programme that generates end user leads and we pass these on to our Certified Integrators in return for a commitment to use our products for that lead. Again, these integrators can borrow products on a sale or return basis and get preferential pricing. We also ask that integrators attend our training courses, which are free, just so we know they have a full understanding of our product range – and we know they are competent.

‘For integrators of other vision systems we still see a partnership possibility and we offer a variant of the OEM partner programme that enables access to our comprehensive stock on a sale-or-return basis, and preferential pricing.

‘When we are approached by a potential integrator, we effectively trial the partnership for six months or so. They benefit from the access to the sale or return service and preferential pricing while they undertake the training and implementation of a few installations. Once the partnership is established in reality we officially add them to our certified list and start to pass leads to them.

‘Unlike other programmes offered by some suppliers, we do not demand signed contracts or exclusivity; we do review our partners regularly, though, and merely ask for some loyalty to us in return for the pricing discounts and leads that we give. We genuinely see this as a real partnership that has trust and loyalty on both sides.

At Multipix, a similar scheme is in operation, though on a less formal basis. Director Julie Busby says: ‘End customers often come to us and ask us to provide a turnkey solution, which we cannot do directly as we do not install ourselves. We can offer plenty of advice, but when it comes to the actual solution and installation, that’s when we turn to our preferred system integrators.

‘We don’t have a formal programme as such – we prefer to build long-term relationships with system integrators, and earn a reputation between us. We don’t actively recruit system integrators either, but at any one time, we like to have both a geographical and a technical spread at our disposal. We operate solely in the UK, so we’d probably only have one integrator in any given region of the country. Also, we might look to have specialist integrators with expertise in a particular technology, such as linescan, or application, such as pharmaceuticals, for example. Wherever possible, we try not to overlap with what our different system integrators can offer, so they don’t end up competing against each other.

‘Our preferred integrators benefit from a preferential pricing structure, as well as loan stock, whereby we lend them products for an extended period at no charge, allowing them to demonstrate the benefits to potential customers. Our integrators also get excellent support from us on all technical matters, and we even have a vision lab that they can use, allowing them to run a product sample through it to see what technology would suit it best.

‘We also invite integrators to training days on new products, and whenever a new supplier comes on board, they are also invited to come and meet them and discuss the new products that are then on offer. We never insist on exclusivity, as we don’t think that’s particularly healthy, but we do believe that, if the relationship with the integrator is strong and lasting, then they will come to us first time and time again.’

A manufacturer that has recently introduced an integrator programme to Europe is Edmund Optics. Jens Meyer says: ‘Our Vision Integrator Programme has been operating in the US for a few years already, and it is now starting up in Europe. The main advantages for members of this programme are better prices on our catalogue stock, and also the opportunity to have some of our lenses at the integrator’s own lab for testing etc. We also send them information on any new products as we launch them. Moreover, VIP members are also passed customer leads from us, based on their own areas of expertise. In certain circumstances, we may also invite one or two VIPs to share our booth with us at major trade shows, such as the Vision Show in Stuttgart. This is also beneficial for us, as we often have end customers approach us at trade shows with questions about installation, which we could not answer as we only supply the components. Having VIPs on the booth means we are then able to provide potential customers with a full service – and of course the VIP picks up a good lead.

‘For integrators wanting to join our programme, we usually start with a visit to the integrator’s premises to have a look at the way they do business. We don’t have any specific things that we are looking for, other than integrators that share a similar level of professionalism towards the business we are both in. Also, potential VIP members are considered on the basis of their area of speciality – if there’s a niche that we don’t have covered, for example, then we would probably be very interested.

‘Once accepted on the programme, we require no further site visits, though we will stay in regular contact. Currently, we don’t publish our list of VIPs – it’s an internal list from which we select the most appropriate integrator according to the needs of the customer.

‘We often find that many integrators are engineers at heart – and that means they are not salespeople! That means we do act as “door openers” to a lot of clients for them.’

At Sony, the set-up is slightly different, in that it has a broader network of suppliers and integrators that can work together on Sony hardware and associated software. Product manager Arnaud Destruels says: ‘Sony introduced the Sony Vision Network in 2005, which is much broader than just integration partners. It’s a partnership programme intended to deliver combinations of Sony hardware and third-party software, backed with expert consultancy, advice and supply-chain support. The network was set up to help achieve fast and simple application- and system-building by identifying assured sources of hardware and software compatible with Sony’s products, and providing expertise, experience and advice on integration and sector-specific issues.

‘For integrators looking to join Sony’s network, we would look to establish a dialogue with them. Any partner must have sound technical knowledge and be able to add something extra to what Sony can offer – that might be commercial expertise or experience in a particular sector. There are many ways an integrator can prove this to us, such as talking to us at an exhibition. We build the relationship step-by-step.’

For engineers seeking support and preferential pricing, there are plenty of opportunities to strike up relationships with manufacturers and distributors to benefit both in the long term.