Should Automation Have a C-Level Player?

The financial professionals have had one for decades. Operations has one. And now, even information technologists have one. That is—a “chief officer,” as in Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operations Officer and Chief Information Officer.

What’s missing in the boardroom these days is executive-level representation for the manufacturing automation professional—a Chief Automation Officer.

Do manufacturers, who already struggle under burgeoning management overhead, really need another C-level player? According to a management roundtable titled, “Justifying Automation Investments,” the lack of a C-level representative makes it more difficult to get automation project approval.

The roundtable was part of the 2003 Emerson Global Users Exchange, held Sept. 29-Oct. 3 in Nashville, Tenn. More than 1,100 attendees to participated in courses and workshops that covered topics ranging from business issues and asset management to instruments, valves and process optimization. According to Mike Sorrel, of Syngenta Crop Protection, who served as chairman of the Exchange, attendees represented more than 165 user companies as well as dozens of Emerson alliance partners, local business partners, third-party providers and Emerson divisions.

The “Justifying Automation” roundtable typified attendance, with participants from Bechtel Corp., The Dixie Group, Eastman Chemical, Emerson, Shell and analyst firm, ARC Advisory Group. What brought these folks together was a candid discussion on the business realities of automation investment.

“Show me” mentality

In the mid-to-late 1990s, says ARC’s John Wason, manufacturers made huge investments in enterprise resource planning systems, Y2K fixes and e-commerce initiatives. In most companies, they’re still waiting for the big pay-off. If you approach management now for additional investment, the response is, “Show me.”

In today’s business climate, budgets are allocated for capital projects, and various departments compete for a portion of those dollars. IT professionals have been coached by their CIOs on how to get their projects approved—and it’s working. IT wins because they understand the goals of their audience, the executive board. Says one panelist, “Find out what management is buying, and tailor your proposal to that.”

Roger Erfurdt, manager of control systems for Shell Refining, in Deer Park, Tex., recommends automation professionals go to their companies’ business plans to uncover problems and costs. “Our projects are pushed up from within the organization, but we need to work with other departments, as well.”

Yet how many automation engineers are exposed to their companies’ business plans? And who ultimately has responsibility for calculating return on asset (ROA) investments and life-cycle costs?

Responding to those questions, one audience member blurted out, “You do!” For manufacturing automation professionals, that is both the challenge and the opportunity. It’s your responsibility to put a financial benefit on any capital project you seek to undertake. Support at the highest levels of your organization is critical in this process—take it where you can find it.

Perhaps your company will never hire a chief automation officer, and you’re on your own for getting funding. John Berra, president of Emerson Process Management, has some advice. “You’ve got to find your plant’s pain points and develop a solution that addresses that pain. If the manufacturer doesn’t know it has pain, then that’s a hard one. It’s as if the highest-producing farmer in Russia looks out across his land and says, ‘I’m the best farmer around. My yields are great, my crops are in high demand; I command a premium price.’ Then you put that farmer on a plane to Iowa, and show him a whole new world, one he didn’t even realize could exist.”

Convincing your executive management to invest in automation projects is like showing that farmer how good things could be, says Berra. It’s an economic discussion first, and a technology discussion second.

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