Getting Out of the Dark Ages

Feb. 1, 2005
Some people think things never change, while others fail to see the antecedents of today’s events. We’re probing deeply into manufacturing software in this issue and some may think that this is totally new thinking made possible only by the latest software technology.

I was introduced to computing in 1976 when I reported to the vice president of product development in a manufacturing company. I had developed an unfortunate (in my opinion) expertise in things such as cost analysis and inventory, plus had experience in areas including production control and scheduling. This VP had an idea that the company should have a management information systems (MIS, remember those days?) department, and that I should be the one to run it. So off I went to IBM school and purchased a software package to do MRP-II on our IBM System 3 punch card-driven computer. For those many of you younger than I, MRP was materials resource planning.

What we were trying to do almost 30 years ago is just what companies are trying to do today—integrate scheduling, inventory, purchasing, bills of materials, product specifications and manufacturing operations. So things never change. On the other hand, with software and computers available today, information is provided faster, better and to more people. It’s almost like something entirely new.

Consolidating suppliers

Over the past few years, it became apparent that the larger companies in the automation industry have begun to look at software as a growth vehicle. GE Fanuc, Rockwell Automation and Siemens have all purchased smaller software companies and are now the driving forces behind a rejuvenated trade association called MESA ( This acronym once stood for “Manufacturing Execution Systems Association,” but is now called “Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association.”

Software industry consolidation has not stopped there. Another collaborative software niche is product lifecycle management (PLM). Growing from computer-aided design suppliers, PLM involves product definition, specifications and, increasingly, manufacturing process design. As a further example of consolidation, UGS, a Plano, Texas, PLM supplier, has agreed to purchase Tecnomatix, an Israeli manufacturing software supplier that had recently purchased Richardson, Texas, manufacturing software supplier USData. Also in the PLM arena, Centric Software, based in San Jose, Calif., has purchased Boston-based Framework Technologies.

I had the opportunity to interview two executives of Figure 8 Wireless, a San Diego manufacturer of tools and protocol stacks to support ZigBee wireless networking. Joe Markee, president and chief executive officer, and John Morris, vice president of marketing, briefed me on their recent acquisition by Oslo, Norway, radio chip manufacturer Chipcon. The combined company will be able to supply complete ZigBee wireless sensor network solutions. As Eaton Corp. Principal Engineer Jose Gutierrez told me while I was researching an article on ZigBee and mesh networking, “The supplier who can provide the complete package including tools and chips will win.” This merger appears to put Chipcon into the hunt.

Using these new technologies to make manufacturing increasingly competitive rests on the shoulders of people in the industry who are willing to step up and implement them. In other words, leaders. We can look at these new technologies and nitpick about glitches and bugs, but they are all far ahead of what I had to work with back in the “dark ages.” It takes people such as the readers of this magazine to practice the skills of leadership to get things done. Some of these skills include researching what’s available, creating a vision of a better process and building a critical mass of people willing to help make it happen.

Let’s get out there and make things happen.