Column: A passion for automation

June 1, 2003
What’s driven technology developments for decades?

Passion. I recently read M. Mitchell Waldrop’s The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal. Waldrop is an excellent writer and this story of the history of computing reads almost like a novel. One amazing thing is that many issues discussed about computing through the 1960s and ‘70s are current issues in automation today.

Licklider was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who accepted an appointment to head the Defense Dept.’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, eventually known as DARPA). He had a passion to see computing become more user-friendly. In an era of centralized batch computing, he thought that computers should be constructed so that people could use them as a tool with instant access from a personal desk.

The work he and his successors did at ARPA paved the way for personal computers, Ethernet, the Internet, graphical user interfaces and much more. We in the automation community are still forging ways to use these advances.

What struck me more than anything was how Waldrop portrayed the passion that Licklider and many other pioneers had for how computing could be used to make things better. A more concise handbook for teaching passion and leadership would be hard to find.

Similarly, when we began building our editorial team to start this magazine, an analyst suggested someone to me, noting her “passion for automation.” That captured the essence of our editorial mission, and I immediately made contact to get that person on board as a contributing editor. I’ve seen first-hand on the factory floor the benefits that automation can have for a manufacturing company and want to pass that passion for making manufacturing more competitive along to you.

Kevin Kohls of General Motors never used the word “passion” when I heard him speak, and subsequently interviewed him for this issue. But he certainly exhibits that passion for doing the right thing to boost his company’s throughput and profitability. When he noted that it isn’t the control engineer’s usual duty to ask why throughput has not improved over time, the thought touched on the mission of this magazine—to look at the entire business process of automation.

When Citect’s Quality Manager, Bernie Beaudoin, spoke to me about how using a programming management method called eXtreme Programming was so exciting that he just couldn’t wait to get up and get to work, there was another example of a passion for our business.

Many of the articles in this issue focus on being competitive. This usually refers to original equipment manufacturers and end users. But, competitive health of technology providers is essential for our industry as well. Much has been written about the financial woes of London-based Invensys. Those woes have not deterred development at its Wonderware unit and other U.S.-based businesses of a new software platform that will be integrated across the company’s product portfolio.

Industry leaders from both the user side and technology provider side have a unique perspective on the business of automation. We’ll provide a forum for them to share their views on automation. An interview with ABB’s Dick McAllister kicks off the series. Add your voice to the discussion by sending a note to [email protected].

We believe that automation is no longer the domain of a solitary engineer slaving away in the back of the plant. More often, there is an automation team composed of engineers, IT people, finance types, general and plant management and many others. Applying automation is just too critical for a company’s success to leave it up to one individual. If you are part of that team, this magazine is for you.

From the provocative, yet thoughtful, commentary of industry leader Jim Pinto, to insightful articles and columns by leading industry journalists, Automation World will provide the information you need to make your company more competitive.

Whether we hit or miss, let us know what you think. This is a new magazine and you, our reader, can help shape its direction. Just send me a note about what you’d like to see in future issues.