The Next Big Thing

People who think about technology always wonder what “the next big thing” will be.

Jim Pinto discusses this in his column on innovation this month. He believes that wireless networking is the “next big thing” in technology for automation. Certainly, all the major process systems suppliers have spent 2006 trying to “out-announce” each other with their wireless visions, roadmaps and partnerships.

Further, the SP100 committee of the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA) is hard at work trying to devise a wireless standard for process automation. The committee’s work is coupled with an undercurrent of jockeying by suppliers, all trying to assure that the standard will lean their way. Companies that promote the ZigBee wireless sensor network industry standard seem to be focusing their efforts on building and HVAC applications—hoping that industry segment will form the critical mass that will send sales off the charts.

When you look at the momentum building for wireless networking, it’s easy to believe that the technology will, indeed, be the “next big thing.” I think that this is only a part of it, though. If you take a wider look at things, there are many technologies coming together that will coalesce as true performance management. What I mean by that is a set of technologies that will enable manufacturing professionals from operators to corporate executives to wring optimum performance from their manufacturing assets. This will help manufacturing become a corporate asset, rather than the “necessary evil”seen by too many top executives today.

Recently, I’ve had briefings from both Intel and Microsoft, both of whom make the technologies that play “under the hood” of industrial automation. More powerful chip sets that consume less power and include enhanced multiprocessing will power a controller integration revolution. Meanwhile, Microsoft is releasing software for the back office that will provide better integration of information for its independent software vendor partners—that’s the automation and performance management suppliers from whom you obtain your technologies. Add all this up, and you’ll start to get a feel for the next big thing—performance excellence.

I don’t propose that this is the end of the road. Performance excellence is best described as a journey. You must keep on getting better, or your competitors will leave you in the dust. It’s also a people thing. Every person I interviewed for my feature article on performance management talked about the need to get people on board, empower people and get people working together. Working with people is hard and requires constant attention. Lean manufacturing (or the Toyota Production System) was going to be the end of the journey. Or Six Sigma. Or Continuous Improvement. What you must do, in reality, is combine technology, rigorous methodologies and people skills to achieve operational excellence.

Improvements of our own

I hope by now you have checked out our new Web site at www.automationworld.com. With the hard work of Dave Newcorn, our new media vice president, and Jane Gerold, Automation World director of custom content, we have a site that is easier to navigate, and one that aggregates content in lots of ways that we hope you find convenient when you are searching for some information about automation.

You may have noticed that I used a different title for Jane, and that her column is not in its usual place anchoring the magazine. Jane has a new role in which she will be developing new ways of providing important automation information. She’ll be working on our expanded Webcast initiative, plus custom content from many sources. We’ll miss her insightful commentary, but you’ll be able to pick up some of that when she hosts some of our upcoming Webcasts. 

Gary Mintchell Editor In Chief gmintchell@automationworld.com

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