Control News from Europe June 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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Rockwell Automation sets out strategy for extending its reach into the process automation mainstream . . .

For a company that has in the past been accused of failing to resolve the inherent conflicts between its hardware and software activities, the choice by Rockwell Automation of Ironmongers’ Hall in the City of London as the venue for a U.K. press briefing on its process automation strategy might fall into that ominous category of “courageous.” In truth however, as the headquarters of one of the City’s most ancient livery companies, with a history going back 700 years, Ironmongers’ Hall has about as much to do with ironmongery as Rockwell would have you think it has with the old style, push-the-boxes-out-the door, PLC business.

That’s the basis of the decision to bring together representatives of each of Rockwell’s recent process automation acquisitions―ProsCon, ICS Triplex and Pavilion Technologies―and its rather longer established alliance partner, Endress+Hauser, in a single press event designed to demonstrate that collectively they represent, not a succession of more or less random impulse buys, but integral pieces of an ongoing strategic jigsaw puzzle.

Not newcomers

That task fell to Richard Sturt, a long-time Rockwell U.K. marketing veteran and currently business development manager for process industries. Sturt argues, with some justification, that “We’re not new to process,” pointing to the huge numbers of drives, motor control centers, motion control systems and PLCs it already sells, particularly into the hybrid end of the process market. As a result, he believes Rockwell doesn’t have to introduce itself when it pitches for process control business because “We work with these people every day.”

What they do have to do, however, is to convince process industry users that they have a control platform which stands comparison with the best that the established DCS vendors have to offer and around which the new acquisitions can be clustered to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It has to be said that, on last week’s showing, it’s not clear that Rockwell itself, let alone anyone else, is entirely convinced that it really has that platform.

Instead, its overall approach is based on the argument, already made familiar by successive presentations from arch rival Siemens over the years, that, in contrast to the mainstream DCS vendors, what it has to offer is a common plant-wide architecture capable of integrating everything from the arrival of raw materials to the dispatch of finished goods. There’s no doubt that, as Siemens has demonstrated, it’s a compelling argument in a host of industries right across the hybrid market from food to fine chemicals, and Rockwell is now attempting to apply it in areas such as cement and steel, where the continuous element, while significant, is still by no means dominant.

Complete solution

Sturt gave as an example one potential customer faced with the near impossible task of supporting 23 different control solutions on a single site. “We believe we can provide a complete solution,” he said, adding, “There’s no doubt that customers want it.” And he reckons even doubters can be persuaded. For example, he said, when Rockwell lost a project to a DCS competitor two years ago, it was able to come back and win a similar project from the same customer just a year later.

Despite these successes, however, one can’t help feeling that Sturt and his colleagues are being somewhat disingenuous. His key graphic, used both in the introduction to and the conclusion of the presentation, shows a continuum of automation applications from discrete through hybrid to continuous process, with the solid block of Rockwell’s presence across discrete and hybrid tapering off into the continuous end, but with successive alliances and acquisitions progressively extending its coverage. The underlying justification for that extension is, of course, that the process automation market as a whole is, according to most estimates, worth roughly twice as much as the discrete market. Given Rockwell’s acknowledged strength in discrete and the ever- present demand for growth, “expanding into the process market is the best opportunity,” said Sturt. In reaching that conclusion Rockwell is, of course, by no means alone―GE Fanuc, Mitsubishi and Siemens are all in pursuit of the same goal.

Is there perhaps a flaw in this argument, however? True, the process automation market as a whole may be attractive, even if the incumbent DCS vendors are unlikely politely to step aside. However, the real money is buried at the far end of Sturt’s continuum in up stream oil & gas, refining and petrochem, where the plant-wide integration model is arguably least compelling and where, in any case, the existing vendors compete as much, if not more, on their proven domain expertise as on the perceived marginal advantages of their respective systems.

Confusion

Moreover, there does seem to be an element of confusion as to whether Rockwell can indeed penetrate that end of the market or even whether it should be trying. On the one hand, Sturt and his colleagues argue that ICS Triplex’s strength in oil & gas in particular will open doors for its new parent; on the other, both Sturt and his boss, Dominic Malloy, seemed to concede in subsequent conversations with INSIDER that they do not, for example, expect to pick up a major refinery project in the near future, although they believe that they have both the product portfolio and the expertise to handle such a project.

So why does Rockwell think it can succeed where other PLC vendors over the years have tried and failed? And has it in reality any chance of doing so without making a major acquisition aimed both at grabbing market share and filling what many perceive as gaps not at the periphery, but at the core of its process portfolio? Sturt’s answer is that Rockwell can already “claim leading solutions in our own right” and that “we feel that the acquisitions we have made give us a world-class process control solution.”

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