Same ol’ song and no dance

From a vendor’s perspective, legacy is innovation’s worst companion, and according to Industrial Networking columnist Jeremy Pollard, it’s very difficult to be innovative if it leaves the installed base behind.

Jeremy PollardBy Jeremy Pollard, CET, Columnist

A good friend from San Diego, Jim Pinto, prognosticator of the world of automation, defined innovation as something that yields at least a 10-fold improvement in whatever you’re measuring. It could be productivity, profits, time off, or simply “wow” factor.

Most companies don’t want to innovate like that since it might alienate their market, their customers, and therefore their business.

From a vendor’s perspective, legacy is innovation’s worst companion. It’s very difficult to be innovative if it leaves the installed base behind, and begats the vendor leap-frogging process that often takes place when companies without those problems jump ahead in the technology-deployment race.  The place we go nowadays to see this leap of technology is more likely to be the Internet, but in the past it had been tradeshows.

While I think the ISA exhibition and conference will remain required attendance at least every other year for users and vendors alike, there has been a definite change in the way the show is executed.

This year the show was in Houston in October. There were some good technical sessions, as always good networking, and re-establishing friendships. There were more keynotes, something named YAPFest for the youngest members of our industry, and an on-floor theater for technical presentations.

There were no stage dancers again this year, and no throngs clamoring for choice invites to the best hospitality events.

What also wasn’t there was product innovation. Now before someone takes my head off, please realize that I only had a day to roam the floor. But, if I had to search that hard, then there likely wasn’t any innovation.

New and improved? Yes, lot’s of that being claimed. If I saw the word “wireless” once I saw it a million times.

My flowmeter, which has been around for 15 years, now can communicate to your control system wirelessly. Cool, cost effective, and saves the system builder money? Yes. Is it innovative? No.

As a vendor you can’t have technology in the pipe for a measly five years, then supplant it with innovative technology that alienates your customers. Marketing at its finest has a tough time with that sell.

While I can carry on about the ISA not representing discrete vendors and customers as well as it does process (where its roots are), the vendors and customers that attended did so for their own reasons, not ISA’s.

I ran into a general lack of enthusiasm, a very big lack of innovation in products as well as presentations (are we that boring as an industry?), and a large dose of confusion. As another industry guru exclaimed: “Encouraging, but dull.”

If I was a controls user—OEM or end user—looking for new stuff, I would have come away from this show floor not knowing what to do.

Armed with specifications galore, exhibitors tried to dazzle potential customers with techno-babble that anyone would be proud of.

I was in the press room taking a well-deserved rest, and an instrument company representative came in and began writing—yes, writing—on CD cases with a black Sharpie marker. What were they thinking?

One of my colleagues rationalized the idea that many companies showing their wares come from the poorer side of the marketing budget tracks. Listen, if you label your press kit CD with a Sharpie, then you won’t ever get to the other side of those tracks.

Perception is everything. If you build 30 machines a year or install complete systems in your plant, are you going to switch to technology from a company that isn’t prepared enough to label their CDs? I think not.

I walked by a company booth that proudly stated its products conformed to some apparently hot-button standards and regulations. I hadn’t a clue what these letters and numbers meant, and because of that I kept walking. It might have been because the three guys in the booth were all sitting down as well. Give me a reason to stop! I thought the main reason a vendor was at a tradeshow was to educate, sell, and build on your existing customer base.

I understand that innovation can be very scary for some, but will be embraced by many. Let your customers in on the secrets. Don’t hide them or diminish their apparent value with inadequate marketing or tradeshow skills. Your customer’s customer needs them.

  About the Author
Control Design columnist Jeremy Pollard, CET, has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 20 years. He’ll be pleased to hear from you, so e-mail him at

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