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Turning the traditional distribution model on its head

The traditional model for distribution is to offer the widest possible spread of products, but one company is turning this model on its head, bringing a much more targeted range of products to specific automation sectors, and backing this up with specialist applications knowledge.

The man behind the new company is Steven Hill, steute's agent in the UK since 2006. "With our existing customers, we saw opportunities to help them solve a wider range of applications requirements if we could offer complementary products," he says. "At the same time, with a wider portfolio, we would be able to take our high level of expertise into whole new markets."

He continues: "Rather than stock the widest possible range of products and hope that something in the portfolio would meet the customer's needs as a traditional distributor might, I wanted to approach customers from a position where we have a high level of understanding of the industry's needs, and have sourced the best products to address those needs. And we want to back this up with support services such as workshops, supply of samples, on-site applications testing, on-site deployment support, help in interpreting standards, online help, telephone support and remote support."

The result is the launch of forTop, operating out of premises in the Malvern Hills Science Park. Although a new name to the UK, forTop is an established name in the Netherlands. "forTop is steute's distributor in the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as representing other specialist brands," says Hill. "The name comes from the company's approach to product supply and support: 'come to us for top products, top knowledge, top support'. What it adds up to is exactly the distribution model we were looking at for the UK."

A conversation with forTop in the Netherlands and with steute proved fortuitous. "I wanted a forTop-like model for the UK, and forTop itself had ambitions to break into the UK market," says Hill. "The opportunity to set up in the UK as a three-way partnership between myself, forTop in the Netherlands and steute was too good to miss."

Alongside the steute ranges of machine safety and wireless products, Hill has assembled complementary products for automation applications from manufacturers including Scancon, ReeR, Bircher Reglomat, Auer and Aeco. He explains: "We're aiming at offering six core product lines to take into automation applications, safety applications, ATEX area applications and medical applications - all areas where we have extensive expertise and can work with customers to ensure they are getting the right products, combinations of products or turnkey systems for their needs, even including writing software applications for them."

The complementary nature of the products is clear. "steute, for example, is well known in the UK for its machinery safety products, and we can now add to this innovative safety controllers from ReeR," says Hill. "At the same time, steute's ATEX product ranges are complemented by explosion-proof encoders from Scancon." Explaining how forTop differentiates itself from traditional distributors, Hill says: "If we look for example at machinery safety, across all production industries human safety and productivity have to considered together: Is safety assured? How can it be implemented without compromising productivity? What is necessary for the installation to function in a safe way in accordance with current safety standards? These issues extend far beyond just product supply, and forTop is able to offer knowledgeable advice and support."

He continues: "We also have a focus on vision and sensing. Detection issues can often be solved in many ways, but which is the best for any given application? By offering a portfolio from leading manufacturers that covers a range of detection technologies, and backing this up with experience gained in many market sectors, we are able to give the best possible advice." At the same time, interest in wireless technologies is growing, and Hill's experience with the steute product range means forTop is well placed to help customers take best advantage. "The installation of cabling power and data can be a challenge in many applications, particularly where access is difficult," he explains. "Products such as wireless switches can provide an excellent solution."

Machine safety and industrial sensors
Automation products in the forTop range include: machine safety components, wireless components, medical foot pedals, ATEX switches and switches for extreme conditions from steute; light curtains, safety controllers and emergency stop relays from ReeR; safety and sensor systems for automation doors and gates, wireless systems and loop detection systems from Bircher Reglomat; and encoders of all types from Scancon.

There are many truly innovative products among them, including the new Mosaic configurable safety controller from ReeR. Certified up to SIL3/PLe for monitoring safety light curtains, laser scanners, photocells, mechanical switches, mats, emergency stops, two-hand controls and more, the Mosaic promotes simple configuration through an intuitive graphical programming system that guides you through the whole process, flagging up errors as you go along. "It's a new approach to safety controller configuration that is very user-friendly," says Hill. "It's simple, flexible and readily affordable."

The three partners in the business have great aspirations for forTop in the automation sector in the UK, but there is potential to grow the company outside of this market too. "In the Netherlands, almost 50% of forTop's business is in energy control, which is an emerging market in the UK," says Hill. "Addressing this sector is something that's very much on our agenda for 2014, once we have the right products and the right people in place." With this in mind, the company has already added a number of energy control technologies to its portfolio, covering measuring devices, current transformers, analysis and reporting systems, and power quality solutions. Again, the model for supply of products will focus on understanding the issues in order to deliver the right solution with the required level of support.

"This is an exciting time," Hill concludes. "As forTop, we have a far greater opportunity to grow business than we had as steute alone, and our unique approach to the market means there is big potential for growth for all the companies that we represent."
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