The business value of automation

WBF’s Director of Strategic Industry Alliances, Rodger Jeffery, is excited about the new challenges our industry faces and suggests we regroup, reorganize, and commit to a stronger working alliance in regards to standards.

By Rodger Jeffery

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By Rodger Jeffery, Director of Strategic Industry Alliances, WBF


Looking Under the Hood
As the WBF’s Director of Strategic Industry Alliances you get thrust into a position where you are forced to take a broad look at our Automation industry (specifically the automated process control segment). You get to go under the hood, to poke around. As you might imagine, an Industry Alliances working group traditionally focuses its effort on reaching out to complimentary organizations. In our case this would be organizations such as ISA, MESA (Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association, CSIA (The North American Control Systems Integrators Association), and the OMAC Users Group. As we reach out to these other organizations our objectives are to…

a) help establish and foster good working relationships between the WBF & complimentary organizations
b) help communicate the positioning and importance of the WBF and each alliance organization
c) help facilitate the establishment of joint working groups between the WBF and alliance organizations  

These objectives are intended to benefit the Automated Process Control Industry at large. This includes ALL groups within the industry. Groups such as manufacturing end-users, systems integrators, suppliers, education etc.

During the last 2 years of poking and prodding, I have been able to construct a reasonable appreciation of the big picture. I’ve heard the whirrs & the creaks. I have been caught in the eddies. I’ve swum in the rapids, and been dumped over the falls. And I can tell you, based on everything I have experienced I am excited about the moment in history that our industry faces! I think we have the chance to pull together & achieve something very significant. However, I also sense the need for the industry to step up and fight for its place within the enterprise. Although we are making strides forward, they are slow. It feels to me like the Automation community needs to regroup, reorganize, and commit to form a stronger working ALLIANCE in regards to standards. If it can find the will to do this I believe it will influence its own future, and drive a new accent into its business value proposition.

Want to be Seen as a Strategic Asset Again?
There can be no doubt that throughout history the perceived value of the “construction of works for practical purposes”, a practice which today we call engineering, has changed. Just look at history. The value of engineering as perceived by kings & queens in seats of power, religious leaders, and wealthy merchants, ascended at an ever increasing pace across the early ages. In fact, throughout the middle ages (~ 5th to 15th century), the early modern period (early 16th to 18th century), and though most of the modern period engineers have been a sought after resource. Many engineers in these times enjoyed influence & power. Throughout the ages inventors of new technologies, project engineers, operations or maintenance engineers etc. etc. have helped to improve peoples lives and have changed the course of history (for good or bad) many, many times.

Relegated to a Tactical Liability…So What Happened?
Why is the ascendancy of our “perceived value” stalling!  Actually in most areas of engineering, as related to manufacturing I would contend it has declined. Why is that? Why has the perceived value of many manufacturing operations within an enterprise changed? Throughout the industrial revolution, and into the late 70’s & 80’s manufacturing was once seen as a “must have in-house, strategic weapon”. In recent times things have changed. In many cases the manufacturing facility is now viewed as “tactical liability”. Case in point, over recent decades many manufacturing enterprises have adopted an outsourcing culture, to distance the “headache” of manufacturing. Preferring to completely hand the headache off to contact manufacturers, or partially hand it off to outside engineering resources. Two examples, Coca-Cola disposed of most if not all their bottling plants by the late 90’s. P&G has outsourced the manufacturing or packing of a fair percentage of its brands.

Want to Play the Blame Game?
So who should take the blame? It would be easy for us to point to others. However, I would contend that as engineers, we need to face the facts, and accept that generally we have ourselves to blame. Think about it. Have you ever heard of a satisfied, happy customer who walked away from a product or service? In most case the answer would be NO. Why then have many of our customers within major enterprises started to minimize the importance of manufacturing as an internal resource? Why did they begin shying away from significant investments in process control engineering? I contend they did so because we did loose our way. We did lose the value race (when compared to other available enterprise tools), and as engineers we encouraged our customers to start marginalizing our part of the engineering profession.      

Unfortunately for us, just about the time enterprise management needed comprehensive, integrated solutions to help strip out manufacturing inefficiencies & enhance supply chain management, we were at a weak point in our history. We found ourselves struggling to deliver. Yes, I concede that at this time technology developments accelerated & the application field broadened. Many new standards emerged, and many process control engineers were overawed and found themselves grappling around trying to make the right decisions while under the pressure of belonging to an ever diminishing workforce. It was and is a fast paced, ever changing environment. The bottom line? In many cases the enterprise lost confidence in us as a strategic weapon, as we floundered for too long to come up with the elegant, efficient solutions they needed to be more competitive. In short, in many cases we were relegated to a tactical liability.      

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