Manufacturers Search for Answers

May 1, 2004
The health of manufacturing companies is the top concern for us at Automation World. We not only look at manufacturing companies in the broad sense, but we are also concerned with the health of automation suppliers and the automation industry, which has an impact on the former.

This month, two news events reveal some of what has been happening in both areas.

About 400 Minnesota manufacturing executives gathered in Minneapolis on April 5 to hear what government and association leaders think are the problems manufacturers face and some solutions various agencies and branches of government are working on. It wasn’t long into the meeting before a consensus could be seen about the challenges facing American manufacturers. These include high health care costs, tort “reform” to reduce what is seen as exorbitant liability awards, changes in the tax code to encourage innovation, raising the skill level of the workforce and a level playing field for Americans relative to its trading partners.

Patrick Cleary, senior vice president of Public and External Affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, explained that NAM has developed an initiative “designed to create a climate in the United States in which manufacturing can grow and prosper.” The goal is to reduce the cost of doing business in the United States.

U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Don Evans, after the requisite political posturing, pointed to the six-point plan in his department’s “Manufacturing in America” report. Programs include a manufacturing council to give manufacturers access to government decision makers, a study of the costs to manufacturers of regulatory compliance, and aggressive confrontation of countries that exhibit unfair trading practices and that do not protect intellectual property.

The trouble with these proposals, while good in theory, is that they are future promises, not action items happening today. Conversation at lunch among manufacturing executives centered on the thought, “If we just wait around for them, we might be dead.” I agree. Don’t wait for Washington to help. Anything the government does to aid manufacturing is good. But do things yourselves to become competitive, such as the wise implementation of automation. Control your own destiny as much as possible.

The other item that jump-started some thinking was an article in The Wall Street Journal about the Microsoft-Sun settlement. Robert A. Guth and Don Clark (“Behind Secret Settlement Talks: New Power of Tech Customers,” April 5) point out the power of customers driving interoperability and standards. It seems that major information technology (IT) customers have grown weary of trying to get different systems to work together. According to the writers, these customers have enough clout that they could get the two warring parties together and say something like, “Work together, or else...”

This is similar to what’s been happening in industrial automation for some time. It just hasn’t been as dramatic. Large manufacturing firms have been pushing vendors for interoperability for several years.

Realizing that total automation component interchangeability was a nirvana reachable only in another life, the market has gravitated to interoperability that is built upon open standards. This allows suppliers other than the primary one to add value to parts of systems or even entire subsystems.

I believe that this is a case where the PC-based control companies lost their battles, but won the war. Use of commercial technologies has proliferated, leading to greater interoperability. Most of the pioneering companies are gone, but the vision lives on. Not only have the “major” controls vendors adopted commercial technologies, smaller companies as well have been able to introduce control products at less cost, providing users with an excellent array of choices to consider when designing new control systems.

This is a good thing for all.