The business value of automation

March 13, 2007
WBF’s Director of Strategic Industry Alliances, Rodger Jeffery, is excited about the new challenges our industry faces and suggests we regroup, reorganize, and commit to a stronger working alliance in regards to standards.
By Rodger Jeffery, Director of Strategic Industry Alliances, WBF

Looking Under the Hood
As the WBF’s Director of Strategic Industry Alliances you get thrust into a position where you are forced to take a broad look at our Automation industry (specifically the automated process control segment). You get to go under the hood, to poke around. As you might imagine, an Industry Alliances working group traditionally focuses its effort on reaching out to complimentary organizations. In our case this would be organizations such as ISA, MESA (Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association, CSIA (The North American Control Systems Integrators Association), and the OMAC Users Group. As we reach out to these other organizations our objectives are to…

a) help establish and foster good working relationships between the WBF & complimentary organizations
b) help communicate the positioning and importance of the WBF and each alliance organization
c) help facilitate the establishment of joint working groups between the WBF and alliance organizations  

These objectives are intended to benefit the Automated Process Control Industry at large. This includes ALL groups within the industry. Groups such as manufacturing end-users, systems integrators, suppliers, education etc.

During the last 2 years of poking and prodding, I have been able to construct a reasonable appreciation of the big picture. I’ve heard the whirrs & the creaks. I have been caught in the eddies. I’ve swum in the rapids, and been dumped over the falls. And I can tell you, based on everything I have experienced I am excited about the moment in history that our industry faces! I think we have the chance to pull together & achieve something very significant. However, I also sense the need for the industry to step up and fight for its place within the enterprise. Although we are making strides forward, they are slow. It feels to me like the Automation community needs to regroup, reorganize, and commit to form a stronger working ALLIANCE in regards to standards. If it can find the will to do this I believe it will influence its own future, and drive a new accent into its business value proposition.

Want to be Seen as a Strategic Asset Again?
There can be no doubt that throughout history the perceived value of the “construction of works for practical purposes”, a practice which today we call engineering, has changed. Just look at history. The value of engineering as perceived by kings & queens in seats of power, religious leaders, and wealthy merchants, ascended at an ever increasing pace across the early ages. In fact, throughout the middle ages (~ 5th to 15th century), the early modern period (early 16th to 18th century), and though most of the modern period engineers have been a sought after resource. Many engineers in these times enjoyed influence & power. Throughout the ages inventors of new technologies, project engineers, operations or maintenance engineers etc. etc. have helped to improve peoples lives and have changed the course of history (for good or bad) many, many times.

Relegated to a Tactical Liability…So What Happened?
Why is the ascendancy of our “perceived value” stalling!  Actually in most areas of engineering, as related to manufacturing I would contend it has declined. Why is that? Why has the perceived value of many manufacturing operations within an enterprise changed? Throughout the industrial revolution, and into the late 70’s & 80’s manufacturing was once seen as a “must have in-house, strategic weapon”. In recent times things have changed. In many cases the manufacturing facility is now viewed as “tactical liability”. Case in point, over recent decades many manufacturing enterprises have adopted an outsourcing culture, to distance the “headache” of manufacturing. Preferring to completely hand the headache off to contact manufacturers, or partially hand it off to outside engineering resources. Two examples, Coca-Cola disposed of most if not all their bottling plants by the late 90’s. P&G has outsourced the manufacturing or packing of a fair percentage of its brands.

Want to Play the Blame Game?
So who should take the blame? It would be easy for us to point to others. However, I would contend that as engineers, we need to face the facts, and accept that generally we have ourselves to blame. Think about it. Have you ever heard of a satisfied, happy customer who walked away from a product or service? In most case the answer would be NO. Why then have many of our customers within major enterprises started to minimize the importance of manufacturing as an internal resource? Why did they begin shying away from significant investments in process control engineering? I contend they did so because we did loose our way. We did lose the value race (when compared to other available enterprise tools), and as engineers we encouraged our customers to start marginalizing our part of the engineering profession.      

Unfortunately for us, just about the time enterprise management needed comprehensive, integrated solutions to help strip out manufacturing inefficiencies & enhance supply chain management, we were at a weak point in our history. We found ourselves struggling to deliver. Yes, I concede that at this time technology developments accelerated & the application field broadened. Many new standards emerged, and many process control engineers were overawed and found themselves grappling around trying to make the right decisions while under the pressure of belonging to an ever diminishing workforce. It was and is a fast paced, ever changing environment. The bottom line? In many cases the enterprise lost confidence in us as a strategic weapon, as we floundered for too long to come up with the elegant, efficient solutions they needed to be more competitive. In short, in many cases we were relegated to a tactical liability.      

The Way Back Up
If you were in attendance at the annual “excellence in manufacturing” ARC Advisory Group conference in Orlando last month, where many senior manufacturing executives spelt it out for the engineering community, you would have heard the following mantra over and over.

“Your industry must find a way to…

  1. ACCELERATE & COMPRESS the development of INTEROPERABLE STANDARDS, standards that will work horizontally across, and vertically within our supply chain.
  2. Also give us COMPREHENSIVE SOLUTIONS that we can deploy SIMPLY and manage SIMPLY, solutions that will make us more COMPETITIVE! “
    This is the way up. I doubt whether our industry’s customers can cry out any louder or more explicitly than they are right now.

Coming Together
Most end-users believe that both these goals should be and could be addressed by the suppliers alone. I believe that they are correct in regards to point 2) above. However, there are some big assumptions and flaws in that conclusion in regards to point 1).  

Suppliers are probably the worst group to lead the development of standards. They have too much self interest, and usually have too much of a technology legacy at stake. Standards work left to the leadership of suppliers, encourages log jams and standards work can drag on and on. There are many examples of these log jams in our history and even as we speak.

On the other hand end-users have a vested interest in getting standards work completed and in place a early as possible. This allows them to effectively adopt new technologies at a faster pace with a higher degree of success, profitability and a lower total cost of ownership.

So What is the Problem? Why Can’t Suppliers Deliver?
Statistics tell us that more than 80% of all suppliers participate in Standards Work today. More importantly less than 30% of the End-Users whose revenue streams are over 1 Billion USD (and I am being generous with the percentage) participate in Standards Work. See the problem!

End-Users will never get what they want, nor as fast as they want it, until their management buys into the idea that they have to fund their employee’s participation in standards work. If they don’t they will continue to undermine the longer term health of their enterprise.     

So If You’re Willing to Buy In, How Can You Engage?
Firstly, there many work groups you can join. There is still work to do on S88 & S95. The Make2Pack work group has come along way in harmonizing the S88 and OMAC standards, but there is still more work to be done there. There is work to be done in the construction of “education modules” to help educate both basic and advanced end –users of the standards. The workgroups will take any help they can get. Especially if you are an end-user, we specifically need end-users. Please visit the following web sites and find a standards workgroup that interest you or your company and e-mail the committee chair.

Please also visit the WBF’s SPINNAKER webpage. You’ll see how we have affiliated ourselves to the AUTOMATION FEDERATION to ensure the work you do attains maximum impact.

Again, we need your help to invigorate and change the industry’s standing. Greater numbers of End-Users have to come together with suppliers so that together they can deliver the STANDARDS at the SPEED that the industry needs. Once done then the End-Users will have every right to expect the suppliers to follow through on the SOLUTIONS.   

I leave you with this thought. There is an old saying amongst engineering managers…that most engineers cost you money, some good engineers save money and a few excellent engineers make money! One by one, engineers (suppliers and end-users) have to put themselves back in the black and then become excellent engineers.

Now is the time. It is that point in history. Our customers have been clear. Their goals now spelt out. It is up to us to come together to get the job done. Carpe Diem, come together and increase our Automation industries business value.

  About the Author

Rodger Jeffery is a Global Business Development Manager working for Mettler Toledo Inc. in Columbus, OH. Jeffery has been around the automation of measurement and control since 1975. He has lived and worked on four continents, and has been a volunteer member of the WBF for the last six years.

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