The Search for Innovation

April 17, 2003
Its gotten tougher to find breakthrough technologies

We publish a Top Technology Trends article every year, where we give you our synopsis of what's coming in our industry. In past years we've talked about wireless communications, nanotechnology, hot new computer processors, and other wondrous things that will make your process control systems and instrumentation better, faster, and more accurate. (This year's technology trends article will be on the web in about a week at:

Writing these articles is getting a little frustrating, because many of the trends we talked about years ago have yet to appear in the marketplace. Although the technology and knowledge exists to produce wireless sensors, for example, we've seen only a few actual products.

In fact, we see very little really new coming to market these days. The end of innovation appears to be upon us as the flow of new product releases crossing our editorial transom dwindles.

In the Good Old Days, about 3,000 new industrial products were being announced every month via news releases. Today, only about 700 new industrial products are announced every month, and maybe 50 are control or instrumentation devices. Sometimes it's less than that.

It almost as if product research and development has stopped. R&D seems to have been replaced by market research that tells the vendor to add an Ethernet port or a web server or a HART interface to an existing product.

But real innovation still thrives, it just seems harder to find. In many cases, true performance enhancements occur when a company adds a new processor chip or a software upgrade. But sometimes these occur a "rev" at a time, and we don't hear about them.

And when something new and exciting does get out, we might not know it, for two reasons.

First, many product announcements are poorly written. If a product actually does embody new or interesting technology, it can be like pulling teeth for editors to dig it out of poor documentation. And believe me, we are always looking for new and innovative products. It's part of our job to search out and report new technologies.

Second, many of the innovations come out of small companies, which are notoriously bad at marketing. If you build a better mousetrap, the old saying goes, the world will beat a path to your door. Bull. In today's world, you have to market that product or you'll never sell it.

As we've pointed out here before [CONTROL,Oct. 02, p27], smaller companies tend to be much more innovative and take bigger risks than larger companies. They are willing to bet the farm on their new and more elegant way to sense or control. Many of the founders of such companies are engineers with a vision and a dream, attributes that seem to have been beaten out of engineers in large companies.

Alas, being engineers, the founders don't understand the elements of marketing. They think other visionary engineers like you will simply find them. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Instead, at the very moment that a startup company needs to spend money on marketing, it usually runs out of venture capital.

Therefore, if you are looking for advanced technology, you have to dig deep, wander around trade shows, and search the Internet to find all those better mousetraps.

One good place to find companies with innovative technology at trade shows is within large exhibits, such as Microsoft or OPC Foundation. These big companies invite little vendors to set up tiny four-foot-wide booths. It's amazing what you'll find in those little nooks and crannies.

For example, at this year's National Manufacturing Week show, a huge process control vendor announced yet another multimillion-dollar frameworks system. At the same time, in a corner of the Microsoft exhibit, a bunch of vendors--HMW, InduSoft, Applied Data Systems, Advantech, H-P, and Siemens--combined their products in a data acquisition system just by plugging them together via Ethernet and .Net, and writing a little software. It took two weeks, they said. Who needs frameworks costing millions when the same basic functionality is available for a few thousand dollars? If you can find it, that is.

Other good places to look are the small six-foot booths tucked back in the corners, behind pillars and in the basements of major shows. Steve Rubin of Intellution unveiled his PC-based The Fix HMI/SCADA software in a six-foot, one man booth at a long-forgotten ISA Show. The Fix revolutionized the HMI industry.

Small companies with new and revolutionary products are out there. You may have to search for them, because sometimes they don't know how to reach you.

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