ARC Analyzes AspenTech's Latest Moves

BOSTON — The 2013 AspenTech OPTIMIZE conference in Boston focused largely on demonstrating AspenTech's commitment to developing solutions for industry and creating products that are easy to implement and use, say analysts from ARC Advisory Group. The company demonstrated many featured products and solutions on tablet PCs and mobile devices. In addition to its technology solutions, the company put much emphasis on its R&D activities and its efforts to recruit recent university graduates. The company has increased its staff by 4% and now has 30 offices worldwide with 1,320 employees. Mark Fusco, president and CEO, spoke about going "back to the future," by which he meant re-aligning the company back to its roots in scientific research and the academic community of MIT, according to ARC's Dick Hill.

Key takeaways from the conference include that the company is

  •     Committed to simplify the use of its technology on all user interfaces (UIs) including many mobile devices or tablet PCs;
  •     Striving for data integration across engineering, manufacturing, and supply chain;
  •     Evolving applications from worksheet to workflow and enhancements to the user interfaces and visualization;
  •     Re-igniting its roots in academia, partly by forming a corporate advisory board with universities.

Over 30 years ago, AspenTech as a commercial entity emerged from the MIT laboratory work known as the "ASPEN (Advanced Systems for Process Engineering) Project." This led to the introduction of Aspen Plus back in 1981. Over the years, the company moved away from its initial close ties with academia. The company's recent formation of the "AspenTech Academy" represents a major move back to its roots in academia and scientific research. Initially working in collaboration with six universities (Purdue University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Delaware, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and RWTH Aachen University), the objective of Aspen Academy is to support technology research at the universities to help foster advances in engineering principles such as those driven by the original ASPEN Project.

Dr. George Stephanopoulous, director of the AspenTech Academy, explained that the goals for collaborating with the universities include reinventing optimization in process manufacturing and to further address the new worker generation. The academy will play a role in conceiving new technology and provide scientific and technology advice. Future plans include discovering ways to increase usage of applications and enhancing accessibility. Emerging technologies like cloud computing, advanced deployment, virtualization and business intelligence will be fundamental.

The company's vision is to provide solutions that are more integrated across engineering, manufacturing and the supply chain and have enhanced usability and easier "install-ability." With updates and new innovations being added every 90 days, the company is continually integrating, merging, enhancing and adding new products. To meet some of the needs of today's tech-savvy younger generation, the company is improving its user interface and visualization tools and working to decrease the learning curve for new users. According to a company executive, thanks to recent enhancements, "If you know how to use one product, the skills are transferable to other products."

The company's core engineering simulation tools—Aspen HYSYS and Aspen Plus—now have a consistent and more intuitive user interface (UI) that feels more like a work flow than a worksheet. Part of the new UI experience includes browser and tablet support through HTML5. This means that these engineering tools can now take advantage of many of the modern features that touch screens and tablets have brought to mobile computing.

Mr. Manolis Kotzabasakis, Executive Vice President, Products, referred to the new aspenONE web-based user interface as one example of the company's transformation. This UI allows users to work with the software anytime, anywhere using a web-based or mobile device. According to Mr. Kotzabasakis, enterprises can use aspenONE products without specialized product training or desktop installation. As one example, Aspen's new web and mobile product allows companies to use a chemical process simulator or optimize an oil and gas process and visualize with trends and graphics from any iOS or Android device.

AspenTech acknowledged what many practitioners already know; over 60% of multivariable controllers operating in the world are out of tune and, thus, are not effectively reducing process variability. While efforts have been made in the past to provide corrective tools, most have required the time and effort of process control engineers and disturb process operations while the model is being rebuilt. New adaptive process control functionality can be enabled to run automatically to adjust the models through slight step changes of the process and automatically enable the improved models.

ARC believes that AspenTech's stated intention to draw on its academic affiliations as part of R&D strategy represents a very promising strategic play by the company. However, it was not clear how university-based research and development will directly influence product direction and innovation. Dr. George Stephanopoulous cautioned that the university-based corporate advisory board's guidance to AspenTech would be sensitive to the pace of change in the industry, ensuring that new product developments remain connected to real-world needs and technology acceptance.

The company has made progress on its new, simplified user interface and is clearly listening to its customers, addressing specific customer requirements today, while also innovating to anticipate future needs.

ARC agrees with Mark Fusco's statement that AspenTech will need to continue to earn the trust and respect of its customers through their positive experiences with the company's products, including as a trusted partner to help navigate the rapid pace of technology change.


 

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