Process Automation Hall of Fame: Cast a Giant Shadow

Three Men Whose Careers Changed the Automation Industry and the World

By Walt Boyes

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And Certainly Not Least, the Business Leader: Vern Heath

"I was born Feb. 1, 1929, in McGregor, Minnesota. My parents were farmers in sandy fields that were not the best soil," Vern Heath reports. "I was the oldest of eight. When I was eight years old, I became a polio patient. I spent a lot of time in hospitals, and I’ve used crutches much of my life. I'm not glad I had polio, but I'm certain I would never have reached my achievement levels if I had not had polio. I had to work harder."

"I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1950. I had excellent teachers who gave me a strong foundation in math, marketing, and the humanities, and wise advisors who steered me into financial accounting."

In 1956, Frank Werner, who worked with Heath at the university's Rosemount Aeronautical Laboratory, invited Heath—because of his business training—to join him and Bob Keppel in a new venture. For the first two years they continued to work their regular jobs but spent evenings and weekends in the converted chicken hatchery that initially housed Rosemount Engineering Company.

The rest, as they say, is history, but Heath is reluctant to take credit for the company's success. "I strongly dislike using 'I.' I can very strongly say ‘I' alone would not have reached the success our company made. We had and have an outstanding group of people with a culture that drives for excellence."

Rosemount grew and grew, and at first specialized in aerospace instrumentation, such as the compensated pitot-static tube, the first real modern temperature transmitter, and a lot of the instrumentation that went into even the space suits and the space craft of the Apollo moon missions.
"We had to have high quality," Heath remembers, "so men did not die on the moon."

"My great contributions were to ensure the overall financial resources to support the growth of our business, plus staffing our business functions with talented people," Heath notes modestly. In fact, as he succeeded Werner as CEO in 1968, he shepherded Rosemount into a new role as the world's leading manufacturer of pressure and temperature instrumentation for industrial processes.  The original aerospace business continued to grow and prosper, but Heath’s team recognized it could have an even stronger future as part of a company focused on that market and in 1993 they sold it to BFGoodrich Aerospace.

Part of Rosemount's strategy for the process control market was to leapfrog existing electromechanical technology and move straight into solid-state electronics – an effort that led to the wildly popular 1151 DP transmitter. 

Rosemount was also among the first in the industry to open offices and factories around the world to serve a growing list of multinational customers.  "I led a group to China in 1978, and many more trips followed as we built relationships -- including with the premier," recalls Heath.  "But even before that, a big part of our business was international."

In 1976, to stave off acquisition attempts by companies he did not favor, Heath negotiated the sale of Rosemount to Emerson Electric.  Emerson’s chairman at the time, Chuck Knight, agreed to the deal only if Heath would stay and run the resulting division – which formed the cornerstone of today's Emerson Process Management. In 1985 he was inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame.

In 1994, Heath retired after 38 years with Rosemount, including 18 as part of Emerson. "It was time to leave, with a healthy relationship with Emerson and a fine group of leaders to take Rosemount forward."

A View into the Future

"Several technologies have made significant enough advancement to impact our industry," Mark Nixon says about the future. "One of these advancements is in the area of user interface technology. Another area that is already starting to have an impact is the whole field of data analytics. The third area is smart phones and tablets. There are really several aspects of these devices that are important—general acceptance of these devices in the market, the user interface style and the portability of the devices."

Phinney believes that the "Internet of Things" will lead to the adoption of industrially robust networking in device-to-device communications. "The Chinese are already demonstrating this in their labs at CQUPT in Chongqing," he says. The other trend he thinks is important is "distributed intelligence: local data reduction and processing, which will be more extensive than Foundation fieldbus control loops, and local self-recalibration and self-assessment to the extent possible while in normal operation."

Phinney continues, "STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] education and careers that contribute positively to society need to be attractive. We should have the modern equivalent of the 1960s ‘rocket scientists' as heroes, rather than the entertainment and sports figures and Wall Street get-rich-quick types that so many young people aspire to be. Given the lousy education of most U.S. teenagers, it isn't surprising that most kids aspire to what they see on TV."

Nixon says, "My first step has been to get my sons and their friends interested in engineering. If we create opportunities for them to experience the automation industry, they may be willing to make a long-term career commitment."

Heath recommends that young engineers, "Find organizations that have a high probability to continue to grow by serving the customer better than any competitor," and join them.

"Good enough for today is not good enough for tomorrow. Never let 100% today stay good enough forever. That was our basic philosophy. Continuous improvement is a way of life," he adds.

Phinney's advice to young people is to "get a broad, solid education, including another language (preferably a useful one), so that you realize that there is more than one way to see the world. Then follow your bliss. If you are not happy in your work, with a sense of productive contribution to the world, find something else to do. Expect to educate yourself continuously throughout your life. Learn critical thinking. Follow your bliss."

Phinney concludes, "You've made it this far. The best is yet to come. But hang onto your seats because the rate of change will continue to increase throughout your life. It's an exponential curve, which means that none of us can really be prepared for it. Give up the temptation to try to hold onto the past, and accept and explore the new, whether in culture, technology or anywhere else. As the character S.R. Hadden said in the movie Contact, 'Want to take a ride?' What choice do you have?"

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