Start Running

July 1, 2005
“No one told you when to run/You missed the starting gun” —from “On the Run,” Pink Floyd.

Sometimes automation professionals get into a groove and wake up late to find they’ve just been coasting. This can happen to their control systems, too. The plant has been running. There’s just normal maintenance and tweaks to the system. Then requirements change. Management wants to see more real-time manufacturing information integrated into its expensive business systems in order to better manage the operation.

Contributing Editor Jim Koelsch found some automation professionals who didn’t miss the starting gun, but instead acted out a leadership role in their companies to find a way to migrate control platforms to modern technology. These plants can handle today’s requirements because of their vision, hard work and leadership.

While I don’t believe in the value of endless negativity and being critical of everyone and every company, sometimes industry issues need to be exposed in order to propel change for the better. The idea for a reader survey of experiences with automation software actually came from a marketing manager for one of the leading software companies. We ran a Web survey, and many of you responded. I had interviews with several of you, and missed a couple when we just couldn’t connect on the phone. I’m sorry about that. It’s always great to hear the real story from the plants.

It looks like the biggest problem occurs when one’s supplier is acquired or merged with another company. How the old software is supported and “upgraded” is a sore spot with many. Many commented on the quality of technical support. Comments such as, “Once I finally found the right person, then we solved the problem,” were common. Often, the tech support person just didn’t seem all that well trained in the product and its applications.

The trouble with these surveys is that the results are seldom balanced. Most people who write do so because they’ve had problems. But software is a complex product, and we all have continuing problems with it in our daily work lives. Here’s hoping that all the software company executives and marketing people read this article and go to work on the improvements that these readers would like to see.

One way for companies to motivate people to hear that starting gun is through enlightened compensation plans. Columnist Jim Pinto tackles that problem in his contribution this month. “Neutron Jack” Welch has many detractors, but I think much is misunderstood. It is hard to motivate a large company. Whole companies can get into that complacent mode. Just look at GM and Ford recently. Compensation is only one reason that people work—certainly I do this because I enjoy it. But the correct compensation plan can motivate employees in the right directions.

ZigBee Zeal

One last item in the chain of thoughts this month comes from Managing Editor Wes Iversen’s news piece on ZigBee, coming from his trip to the Sensors Expo. Reading carefully, one sees that not all the wireless mesh networking suppliers are whole-heartedly behind the new standard. Many are still promoting proprietary protocols. That is too bad—for the industry and for each other. Computing did not take off until a set of industry standards—both formal and de facto—were established. I think the same thing is necessary here. Wireless sensor networks incorporating mesh technology hold promise for tremendous benefits in manufacturing. But it will only take off when users feel comfortable that there will be sufficient products and stability in the technology. This comes as a result of standards. I call for all the wireless suppliers to rally around neutral standards.