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Roots of Automation Innovation

Industrial instrumentation and control have always been a hotbed of new products—sensors and actuators and all the “stuff” in between, including signal conditioners, displays, recorders, controllers, valves and actuators. Because industrial markets are relatively specialized and rarely generate high volume, products are usually high-priced, with limited applications in other markets.

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Many automation companies were founded upon innovative developments for niche applications. Successful start-ups expanded their products and markets beyond initially narrow applications and geographies, depending on the real value of the innovation, and also whether or not the founder was able to hire suitable leaders to grow the company beyond the initial entrepreneurial stages.

Since automation is such a fragmented business, all of the major companies have a conglomeration of products, each with relatively small volume, but lumped together to form sizeable businesses. But the few larger companies rarely come up with follow-through developments that match the original founder’s innovations. This relates to Clayton Christiansen’s point in his book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” that innovation cannot easily be “managed.”

Major segments

An exception to the start-up-innovation rule was the distributed control system (DCS), a mix of several important innovations developed in the early 1970s by a team of engineers within Honeywell. This generated a new category that achieved $100 million annual revenues within just a couple of years, and the segment has since expanded to several billions of dollars worldwide.

The other major automation segment to achieve significance, also in the 1970s, was the programmable logic controller (PLC). This breakthrough innovation was the brainchild of the prolific inventor Dick Morley, and one of his first PLCs is on display at the Smithsonian. He worked for Bedford Associates, a small development company associated with Modicon (now part of Schneider). Also contributing to this innovation was Odo Struger, of Allen-Bradley, now Rockwell Automation, which leveraged this innovation to become the U.S. PLC market leader.

The first PLCs were developed for specific applications—reprogrammable test installations in the automobile manufacturing business replacing hard-wired relay-logic, which was hard to modify. But as PLCs were adapted to encompass myriad applications, this innovation resulted in a market segment that has also grown to several billions of dollars worldwide.

Another major industrial automation segment is termed Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA). This loose conglomeration of products was fragmented among several markets and applications until networked personal computers (PCs) and Windows-based HMI, or human-machine interface, software arrived in the late ’80s and ’90s. Several innovative start-ups grew fairly rapidly, offering HMI software with connections to remote PLCs and industrial input/output devices (I/O).

It’s interesting to note that the larger automation vendors did not take the lead in new PC software; all significant growth came from innovative start-ups. Wonderware, started by dynamic engineer Dennis Morin, was paced by Intellution, started by ex-Foxboro engineer Steve Rubin.

Let’s get to sensors and actuators. Rosemount started with special temperature sensors, RTDs,  or resistance temperature detectors, but grew rapidly with the development of its innovative capacitive differential pressure sensors, which rapidly overtook the traditional instrumentation leaders. Rosemount gained market leadership and was eventually acquired by Emerson—which also acquired other innovative sensor companies, among them Brooks (flow), Beckman (pH) and several others.

Fisher Controls was started in Iowa by Bill Fisher, making innovative valves and actuators. It was acquired by Monsanto, and later by Emerson. Interestingly, both Rosemount and Fisher tried to grow by branching out into DCS, but their offerings were relatively insignificant until Emerson put them together with PCs and software (Intellution and other ingredients) to generate leadership with DeltaV.

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