Innovation vs. Motivation

Have automation vendors hit the wall, when it comes to technology innovation?

There are several factors that indicate this may be true. In the last few years, the flow of major product announcements from the global automation suppliers has dwindled to a mere trickle. If you visit the automation industry trade shows, what you’ll see are a lot of industry insiders (vendors, analysts and the press) comparing notes on pretty much the same old technologies.

On the other hand, maybe it’s the automation users who have hit a wall, when it comes to their motivation for adopting new technology. Past early adopters may feel burned by making investments in technology that never proved profitable.

In the early 1990s, the buzzword for new product introductions (both hardware and software) was “solution.” Automation vendors changed their sales strategies from touting “features” to selling “benefits.” But at the heart of most proposals was a specmanship that pitted the vendor’s technology features against its competitors’.

What we’re seeing today is a major shift in an industry that once held new technology as king. Manufacturers, who are the users of automation, aren’t as concerned about features, benefits and solutions—they’re concerned about business results. What’s the return on investment from adopting a new technology? Why should I put in a new system? If it ain’t broke, will my incremental payback justify a purchase?

This is the 21st century challenge. Vendors who are still promoting product “features” or “benefits” to a world that is only interested in results, will not stay in business. And manufacturers who are just chasing new technology, will never compete in a global marketplace. The automation industry—users and suppliers—needs to strike the right balance between technology innovation and business process improvement.

Automation has benefited greatly from technologies —such as microelectronics, memory chips, displays and operating systems—that were first developed for commercial markets. This trend will continue, as wireless networking, fuel cells and radio frequency identification (RFID) become mainstream.

Recently, Automation World editors met with two suppliers who have leveraged new technology to improve their solutions. Joe Bellini, executive vice president and general manager for Brooks Software, a division of Brooks Automation, in Chelmsford, Mass., discussed how the migration from 32-bit to 64-bit processing is a “disruptive technology” that will help build the supply chain management market.

“The roadblock to demand-driven manufacturing is the lack of real-time applications throughout the manufacturing supply chain,” notes Bellini. “With 64-bit processors and 1 terabyte of addressable memory, you have the speed, processing and memory capacity to crunch numbers and process demand changes in real time.”

Honeywell Process Solutions, based in Phoenix, previewed its new Experion R300 series to

Automation World editors in March. The R300, which officially launched late last month (see this month’s News section for more), implements new technology for vertically mounted, high-density input/output and controller modules. Mounting the components on a vertical slant, as opposed to traditional horizontal rack mounting, improves thermal management and provides more space for terminal wiring. According to director of product marketing Peter Zornio, the “backplane” of the system is a wired network with no single point of failure.

Clearly, technology advancements will continue to drive improvements in automation systems, but will they be enough for users to justify new purchases, upgrades and migrations. Will 64-bit technology make real-time the killer app? Will a smaller footprint and higher reliability justify new I/O, albeit backward compatible?

The new king in automation is business process improvement. And that’s not as easy to achieve as imply plugging in the latest gizmo.

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