Speaking from the Driver's Seat

June 1, 2004
Automation leader E.L. Skip Holmes is the Associate Director of Power, Control and Information Systems for corporate engineering technologies at The Procter & Gamble Co. In this exclusive interview with Jane Gerold, Automation World’s Editorial Director, Holmes speaks out on the leading business drivers in manufacturing, and how automation technologists can address those needs.

Automation World: What are today’s business drivers for manufacturers of consumer product goods?

Holmes: I think the business drivers are pretty simple right now—higher throughput, higher reliability, higher quality products at a lower price.

Procter & Gamble’s chief executive, A.G. Lafley, has made it very clear to every employee in the company—all 100,000 of us—that the consumer is the boss. We need to understand their needs, and win at the first two moments of truth. That first moment of truth is at the store, when consumers purchase our products. The second moment of truth is at the point of use. If we don’t win at both moments, then we have not met the consumers’ needs. The other aspect that drives our business is the need to bring “new-to-the-world” innovation that improves the lives of the world’s consumers. People touch P&G products two billion times per day, but there are a lot of people who don’t use our products. We can positively impact the global consumer with new technologies, such as those for water purification.

AW: How have these drivers changed the way that you manufacture?

Holmes: We need to understand, at a deeper level, the fundamentals of our processes and machines in order to maximize throughput, reliability and quality. The automation engineer needs to understand these fundamentals as well as the mechanical and chemical engineers do, because the automation engineer needs to deal with the dynamics of the system, not just the steady-state.

Everything changes in a manufacturing process and there is no perfect system. Automation engineers must know the process, materials and the machines, in order to manage these changes and the associated variability.

Also, we need to look for innovative supply chain solutions that can help us reduce overall cost to the consumer. That drives us to look for lower capital solutions, allowing for even more innovations to be brought to the market.

AW: How can automation technology address business needs and deliver a return on investment?

Holmes: Applied automation must always be tied to solving a business need or problem. When we propose automation for technology’s sake alone, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

The technologists in my group know that the first question I will ask them in a proposal review is, “So what?” They may be all excited about a new, “cool” technology, but I ask them, “So, how’s it going to make money for the company? How will it change the way we operate? How will it change the way people interact to make a difference to the bottom line?”

If technologists can’t link their work, either directly or indirectly, to the bottom line, then it’s just technology, and it’s just fun. Now, we can have fun, and our folks do have a lot of fun solving technical problems, but they need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Most of the engineers now answer my “So what?” question right up front, before I can even ask it. By getting that clear, you make sure that the solution being proposed solves a real business problem and is optimized for that problem.

We’re looking at 10 different technologies, such as wireless communicators and tablet personal computers (PCs), among others, that together, we think could improve productivity by 10 percent to 30 percent. A 1 percent productivity improvement from these technologies could be worth as much as $20 million to P&G on a global basis.

But for the technologies to be effective, you must change your work processes. The technology is just an enabler; processes must change to take advantage of the improvements.

AW: How have you changed your work processes to reflect the changes in business drivers and technology?

Holmes: As automation technology becomes more embedded in our processes and our machines—eight out of 10 packaging machines will use embedded servo controls, for example—technicians at the site need to have higher skill levels. They need to understand servos, motion control and programmable controllers, and not as much about line shafts, belts and gears.

We have been working on our internal work processes to address technology changes in the process and the machine. This requires more upfront analysis to make our systems more robust and easier to maintain. There are technologies we can employ to improve our overall reliability, mean-time-between-failure and mean-time-to-repair, and we can make our processes better as well.

There are also possibilities, with Web technologies and Ethernet available down to the plant floor, to leverage remote diagnostics, both for our internal customers, and externally, through our original equipment manufacturers. For example, during the recent SARS crises in Asia, corporate engineering was supporting a major project in China. Ninety-eight percent of that start-up and support was done remotely, over the Web and our intranet.

These changes impact our work processes by demanding a better understanding of networks and computers. The control engineer 20 years ago needed to know Laplace transforms and control loops; now, they’ve also got to be PC experts and network experts.

Another great tool is the use of Computer Aided Engineering and modeling to define future manufacturing processes. As one of my colleagues says, “Make your mistakes on a small, or virtual, scale, and your profits on a big scale.”

AW: How do areas such as human resources have an impact on the success of a solution?

Holmes: Clearly, the skills needed to create, install and support an ongoing application are essential. Technologists can come up with great ideas, but they have to be implemented and supported by lower-skilled personnel. A lot of the time in manufacturing operations, technicians may only have a high-school education.

More and more, as the workforce changes, you have workers coming in who are PC-literate to the nth degree. But, you’ve got to assess the capability of the team and the organization that has to live with any technology or application. Ideally, you find a solution that embodies “elegant simplicity,” a solution that requires less maintenance and less attention.

One of the reasons that advanced analyzers have not been successful in our industry is that they are too complex and require so much maintenance. Even though the analyzers could make money, people are so busy they don’t have time to take care of them.

AW: You’ve taken a leadership role in the industry, working with the Open Modular Architecture Controls (OMAC) Users Group to develop and apply solution guidelines. How is this a benefit to you, to P&G and to the industry?

Holmes: The benefits are really threefold. First, I want to invest in organizations such as OMAC because it gives me the ability to influence the industry standards and direction. That’s important, because I want my needs met.

Second, the results of those standards will make delivery of the project faster and cheaper. There’s a payback. I think the work that the OMAC packaging group has done to standardize controls on packaging machines is worth at least $15 million to P&G.

And third, the opportunity to engage others in the industry allows us to understand some of our own weaknesses and strengths, so we can do a little benchmarking against companies with which we may not directly compete. We can rub elbows with other automation people to share experiences in areas such as cultural issues or version management problems, and can collectively leverage our buying power with the major suppliers.

Through these organizations, and the relationships I form, I can do things like take my leadership team to companies such as DuPont to review best practices. We learn that we’re an awful lot alike; in some cases we’re ahead of other companies, in some cases we’re behind. We can learn how to solve problems, how to change and how to make systemic improvements. This is good for P&G, good for people and good for the industry.

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