Several years ago, there was an article in which the author reviewed various advanced manufacturing software products by quoting their marketing managers, and then proclaimed that his readers shouldn’t buy any of them. Unless the sole purpose of the article was to prove that the writer wasn’t beholden to advertisers, it was an act of supreme hubris for someone who had never worked in manufacturing to make such a bold statement.
While I was researching my article on strategies for control system upgrades, I found people who live with these systems offering words of caution as well as acceptance of the arduous process required for a major technology upgrade. These industry leaders knew that changing out a control system is neither easy nor painless. But for many, meticulous planning and sound business case analysis enhanced the chances of success.
The other key element was communication. Internally, the successful implementers that I talked with made it a point to include people from all functions affected by the change in their planning meetings. The most difficult communication problem was finding a good way to include people from all the different sites that were affected.
At various conferences I have attended, I have listened in on some private conversations during session breaks, at which individuals affected by an upgrade were meeting for the first time and trying to find better ways. A key player in these meetings has always been the representative from the information technology department.
Another part of the communication process, of course, involves the selected automation supplier. From the manufacturers’ point of view, the optimum supplier relationship is still a mixed bag.
On the one hand, manufacturing companies wish to keep their options on automation suppliers open. In that way, they feel some safety in case their supplier begins charging uncompetitive rates, or in case of supplier business problems. On the other hand, they know that a close, collaborative relationship with their suppliers can pay huge dividends. Of course, that means having just one supplier.
The current resolution of this problem seems to have three parts. First, select a systems partner with a broad portfolio of products and services. Next, supplement with a secondary source that is part insurance and part fill-in-the-gaps. The last part is to insist on the use of standards. If the chosen supplier extensively uses industry standards, then switching partners will not be as painful.
From the suppliers’ point of view, the standards issue is an emerging, though not totally palatable, reality. Given their druthers, major systems suppliers would prefer to “lock in” their customers with systems that tie together better when used only with the vendors’ own products, making it more painful for users to switch. But they realize the business drivers of their customers. So all systems providers at least pay “lip service” to the idea of standards. It is important that customers perform due diligence tests to assure that its partner has an acceptable level of standards compliance.
Columnist Jim Pinto conducted some exhaustive interviews for his column this month on what’s happening at the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA). I interviewed president Ken Baker at the beginning of his term, and Jim interviewed him at almost the halfway point of his term. The list of accomplishments can be found on page 62, along with Jim’s analysis and (almost certainly controversial) recommendations for the Society.
It appears that the ISA is focusing on its standards expertise and is attempting a leading role in standards interoperability. Both of these are valuable roles. Neither will be membership drivers, though. I’m not sure what it will take to get new and involved members. One thing I know from personal experience—more attractive local meeting topics would get me in the car and involved.