THE CALENDAR says it’s early June, and my executive editor is once again peering into the office, inquiring just when he might expect to receive this month’s column. He actually wants to take a vacation this summer, and I’ve been on the road pretty much non-stop for the past month—with no relief in sight.
You see, for us journalists who cover the automation scene, stretches of those normally pleasant seasons of spring and fall have come to be fondly referred to as “User Group Hell.” Really, it’s not meant as an indictment of the supplier community, or of the user group gathering as an institution. However, their proliferation in number and growth in scope in recent years have left little room for family life for us journalists—much less the business of putting out a monthly magazine.
Whether they’re called fairs, exchanges, summits, worlds, symposia—or still go by the humbler moniker of “user conference”—all of the major automation companies now hold at least one each year (if not several around the world), and they’re all growing in scale and importance.
Gone are the days of relatively intimate—and private—gatherings, where power users complained of system deficiencies to be addressed in the next release. Instead, today’s events increasingly involve partner companies—as well as media types like yours truly—and include an exhibit space, keynote addresses, inspirational speakers, conference track, networking events, and a training regimen all rolled into one.
Users and suppliers of automation technology are voting with their time and with their dollars. Hosting or attending at least one such event each year is now a routine part of how industrial automation gets done.
Second, with automation hardware becoming increasingly commoditized, the automation majors are focused on providing a broader range of higher-level software and services. They realize that current users of their bread-and-butter products are the clearest opportunity for revenue growth in these expanding areas. (It can, indeed, be easier to grow revenue from a current customer than go out and find a new one. Meanwhile, shrinking resources on the user side can also mean greater need of—and opportunity for—trusted suppliers.) And what better way to take advantage of these trends than to get as much of your user base as possible together in one place?
But the whole equation unravels, of course, without significant benefit accruing to the user community. For them, getting better performance out of the automation systems they’ve already installed is the clearest opportunity for a return on the time they invest in attending a user-group event, as well as for a return on dollars ultimately invested in complementary technologies.
In addition, the common user experience makes networking and sharing best practices both relevant and beneficial. The opportunity to hear from and meet with supplier-company leaders lends a better understanding of future offerings and direction. Finally, on the practical side, it’s much easier to justify travel expenses on the grounds that the event is a training investment.
The benefits of a user group conference to both sides are clear, but the greatest mutual benefit is derived when the event itself represents the culmination of an ongoing conversation, an established, year-round process by which customer feedback is used to shape future offerings and enhancements—for the ultimate benefit of the user community. The longstanding User Input Subcommittee of Honeywell Process Solutions, as well as Siemens’ Process Automation User Community (a continuation of the former Moore Products Co.’s customer organization), represent two model efforts drawn from recent travels.
These and other suppliers that listen to their customers, allowing them to set the user group agenda, are the ones that will continue to prosper.