Is Custom Machinery Right for You?

It is difficult to compete in manufacturing today in this challenging global economy. The days of buying the same equipment to make the same product at the same speed as your competitor are disappearing. Everyone’s looking for a competitive edge. You can gain this competitive edge by having your own proprietary technology that only you have access to. For this to happen, you will need to build from the ground up with new concepts, technology and process controls with your industry’s latest safety measures and long-term machinery support.

The process of arriving at this proprietary machinery can be difficult and expensive, so many companies turn to a machinery manufacturer to assist and guide them through the complicated process. Contrary to what you might initially think, however, there are precautions and procedures which a buyer can apply when working with a custom machinery builder. Because we at Wilmington Machinery have a perspective from the machinery builder’s position, the following tips may be of value to those in the process of acquiring proprietary high-output processing systems.

Many problems between buyers and suppliers of proprietary machinery begin with the very first meeting, when expectations are not properly defined in writing. Let me repeat: expectations must be written so they can be considered, discussed, clarified, and understood by all. No one can read minds, and making assumptions has been the basis for many long, costly arguments. Expectations should encompass overall objectives and goals, detailed specifications, performance criteria, testing parameters, and budgetary constraints. Because custom projects are by nature highly individualized, nothing should be left to subjective interpretation. Written documentation protects all parties. This includes developing an “exit strategy” prior to beginning that can be used by either party.

The Process of Designing a Proprietary Machine

The process of designing a machine from the ground up can be overwhelming to those who have not gone through the process. In reality, the sequence must be thought of in terms of distinct steps. Wilmington Machinery has broken these out into distinct Phases that should be followed.

The Exploratory Phase. In most cases the customer has an idea to start the process. This is the learning Phase during which the customer explains the process their ideas for the future machinery. This is also a learning period for the machinery manufacturer to understand the critical elements of the particular production process and variable and interfaces necessary to deliver a successful production machine. This typically takes place in 1-2 meetings.

The Concept Phase. During this phase, the machinery builder’s engineering and production-oriented staff formulates several possible solutions and assesses each concept with its Strength, Weakness and Risk Analysis. These are reviewed in detail with the customer for their input and suggestions based upon their understanding of machinery and process requirements. This would include for the first time an estimated cost of the first and subsequent production machines along tentative timelines. This Phase can take 4-8 weeks depending upon the complexity of the project.

The Development Phase. All general arrangement drawings, detail drawings, schematics and bills of materials are created on CAD. A firm price of the machinery and firm timeline are agreed upon, along with a very detailed set of deliverables. This Phase can take 6-12 weeks, again depending upon the complexity of the project.

The Production Phase. The machine is physically manufactured and assembled. This is typically a 3-6 month project depending upon the material delivery time and amount of assembly hours required.

The Validation Phase. During this phase, all machines are tested under agreed-upon production conditions and validated prior to shipping. This would also be the time when extensive operator/maintenance training would be completed, as well as a thorough review of the complete documentation set that includes BOM, detailed assembly drawings, maintenance and the operator manuals.

The Installation/Commissioning Phase.
The machine is installed in customer’s facility, and start-up and full production are validated for a second time.

It is vital that buyers treat each of these phases as separate parts of the whole process and build into the arrangement an agreed-upon series of milestones with sign-offs when the written specifications for each phase have been successfully fulfilled. Again, it is also important that each phase features an exit strategy in the unlikely event that mutual objectives have not been met.

Buyers should be cautious of assuming that a turnkey system is more costly than a pieces and parts approach to custom machinery development. In fact, a turnkey approach is usually much less expensive in the long run. The reason is rooted in the reality that a turnkey supplier provides everything to produce the finished product. Moreover, if there is a component failure, the responsibility is clearly that of a single supplier and there can be no finger-pointing between dual or multiple vendors. Conversely, a system that has multiple suppliers integrating different components is ripe for the “blame game.” Once an initial turnkey system is successful, subsequent systems may be pieced together with much less chance of failure.

Some buyers have been hurt by assuming that the technology represented by the custom machinery they are buying will become their legal property. Before you sign on the dotted line, be sure that you have a binding assurance that the completed machine you receive will, in fact, be proprietary. If you don’t, you may wake up to find your competitors enjoying the technological benefits you paid for!

Because proprietary machinery is frequently required to meet unique processing criteria, a buyer can use the quotation, order and written job specifications to help ensure a comprehensive proving-out sequence of the process. Most successful projects stipulate a production run at the machinery manufacturer’s facility before shipping then a repeating, using identical processing guidelines, once the equipment is in place with the customer.


In summary, the common thread that runs through all “good practices” of customized equipment buying is the absolute need to spell out all expectations, to specify all criteria for performance, and to provide a clear, mutually acceptable method for evaluating progress at each phase of the customizing process.

For more than three decades, Wilmington Machinery has been designing and building cost-effective, highly specialized, quality custom processing machinery.