Control News from Europe May 2008

Read Andrew Bond’s Industrial Automation Insider, a monthly newsletter covering the important industrial automation news and issues as seen from the U.K.

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Sale of MOST product lines to GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms marks an end to MTL’s third party control dream

First casualty of Cooper Industries’ acquisition of MTL might appear to have been MTL’s and its CEO Graeme Philp’s ambition eventually to become the third-party supplier of choice of control systems platforms to the major process automation system vendors. Philp has frequently expressed the belief that the mainstream DCS vendors, which have increasingly based their offering on COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) technologies including Windows, PC hardware, Ethernet and MTL’s own I/O and intrinsic safety products, would eventually evolve to the point where they would make none of their own hardware at all and assemble their systems entirely from third-party supplied sub-assemblies and components.

8000 I/O

With the announcement, however, of the sale of the MTL Open Systems Technology (MOST) product lines “including the MTL8000 general purpose I/O, intrinsically safe I/O, SafetyNet system and process control technologies” to GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms, it might seem that Cooper is giving notice of its intention to focus MTL on its core intrinsic safety, fieldbus and industrial Ethernet businesses rather than further risking antagonizing its customers among first-tier process automation system vendors.

And to an extent that is true, although, as Philp told INSIDER on the line from Yokogawa’s user conference in Houston, the decision had in fact been taken before Cooper came on the scene. Back in January he had said that the Cooper acquisition was “almost perfect for us because it allows us to remain intact with no change in our management or organizational structure.” Observers of such transactions are accustomed to taking such assurances with a pinch of salt but even by those standards, the GE Fanuc deal seems a little precipitate. But that, according to Philp, is because it wasn’t actually initiated either by MTL or Cooper. In fact “GE approached us in the autumn last year, and we have been discussing this sale since then,” he explained.

MOST had its origins in MTL’s 2000 acquisition of Houston-based process control software developer Standard Automation and Control (STAC) and the subsequent decision to develop a control platform based on the already hugely successful MTL8000 series of distributed I/O which, over the years, has been adopted by, among others, Emerson, Honeywell, Siemens Process Automation, Novatech and GE Fanuc itself. Launched in 2003, the 8521 controller family and the subsequent MATRIX control system, the latter based on Invensys’ ArchestrA and Wonderware System Platform products, was seen as offering OEMs and system integrators significant advantages over conventional PLC-based solutions. However, while it had considerable success with second-tier system vendors, it never achieved the hoped-for breakthrough to being adopted by a mainstream DCS vendor.

Hindsight

“With the benefit of hindsight that was because of two factors,” said Philp. “One was the effect of the problems in the industry at the turn of the century, which meant that nobody was in a position to make a really strategic decision on hardware, and the other was that we simply underestimated just how important hardware still was financially and logistically to the DCS majors.”

As a result MOST was seen by some of them, most notably Emerson, as competing directly with its own offerings and, despite the best efforts of MOST president Dennis Gillespie and MTL’s then marketing and sales director, the late Jacques Mosselmans, as well as of Philp himself, those suspicions were never completely dispelled, although rather greater success was achieved with the more recently developed safety logic solver derivative SafetyNet, which achieved immediate success as a SIL-2 solution with Honeywell.

“Clearly we had a problem with the MOST business as some of our most important customers, the control companies, interpreted it as a move to compete with them—which it was never meant to be,” said Philp. “In the end, I think we simply got our timing wrong. If you like, we were ahead of our time. And there’s no doubt it was getting in the way of our relationship with the major vendors, and it’s far more important for us to continue to develop our fieldbus and network businesses. When we started talking to Cooper later last year, they agreed with our disposal strategy, and so the sale has gone ahead.”

Commitment

Quite how GE Fanuc intends to position its new properties is not as yet clear. “This acquisition illustrates GE Fanuc’s commitment to the process market segments and will further enhance our offerings by providing customers with a superior line of SIL-2 controls, intrinsically safe-rated I/O modules and process control technologies,” said Control Systems Business vice president Bill Estep, while Director of Process Solutions Steve Ryan added that “The addition of the MTL8000 line of I/O re-emphasizes our commitment to providing our customers with the freedom to choose the I/O, safety and process control strategy that best meets their needs.”

Whether MOST’s traditional OEM customers will be quite so enthusiastic about having to rely on an increasingly aggressive competitor for their distributed I/O needs remains to seen. Only last month Novatech’s web site was reassuring its customers that the “Cooper acquisition of Measurement Technology (MTL) will not impact 8000 Series I/O availability or development,” a view that they might now wish to revise. What does seem likely is the early replacement of Matrix’s current ArchestrA-based software offerings with equivalents from GE Fanuc’s Cimplicity stable. Meantime, existing MTL customers and competitors will be watching closely to see whether the policy of focusing on core capabilities will impact other recent, pre-Cooper acquisitions and initiatives, including the Elpro wireless business, the RTK alarm business, the Ocean Technical SCADA operation or the Tofino cyber security solution.

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