5 top takeaways from Automation Fair 2015

Connect the dots between investments and outcomes, culture trumps technology, and more

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

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When it comes to building the "connected enterprise"—that beautifully smart network of machines and facilities that will enable an industrial production company to make data-driven decisions and respond quickly to changes—you don't have to try to do everything at one time. But you do have to do something now. 

That was a key take-home message at Rockwell Automation's 24th annual Automation Fair, held this week in Chicago. Attendees (from among a record-setting more than 18,000 registrants) converged on McCormick Place to check out the latest offerings from vendors and hear perspectives on what it takes to build and take advantage of connected architectures.

Here, five points made in forums and executive interviews throughout the week, offered to Automation Fair attendees to take to heart (or to their management):

1. "You don't have to do it all at once." That message of reassurance comes courtesy of Rockwell Automation's Blake Moret, who understands the anxieties that industrial production companies weighing their smart-technology options face.

"So many of our customers have had bad experiences in the past with implementations," said Moret, Rockwell's senior vice president of control products and solutions, in an interview with Plant Services. "They're fearful of what the risk might be."

It's not uncommon for organizations to adopt an all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to smart manufacturing tech, Moret said. But that's a strategic and competitive mistake, Moret and panelists representing both Rockwell and end users suggested throughout the week. Sitting on the sidelines precludes manufacturers from seizing on the incremental cost and productivity benefits offered by making progressive changes in the tools and processes they use.

"Having a step-by-step approach with a trusted partner really is key," Moret said.

2. Along those lines: Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is the connected enterprise. On Tuesday, panelists from Shell Global Solutions, Mullins Food Products, and General Mills emphasized the continuous-nature journey of adopting new tools and evolving production processes to eliminate waste, avoid unplanned downtime, and optimize use of human and inanimate resources.

"What we didn't know is what we didn't know, and that is going to be a long journey for us," said Mullins Food Products' Art Clausen of his company's work implementing new technologies to try to enhance control of the production process.

In particular for companies early in their journey to better connectivity, the threat of paralysis by analysis looms. That's little wonder, given the complexities of the task at hand and the ever-broadening array of products and services available to enable remote condition monitoring, inventory management, business analytics, and more. Plus, as Rockwell Automation Chairman and CEO Keith Nosbusch pointed out during Tuesday's press event, "The manufacturing floor is not one that will change quickly simply because there's a new technology."

But a history of slow response to change doesn't justify inaction now, especially given the quickening pace of technologies' evolution—Nosbusch said this has brought the automation industry to "an inflection point" today. And Jim Wetzel, technical director at General Mills, issued this call to action: "You don't have to worry about, 'Let's wait until the end has been decided.' You need to start now, because it's going to take a while to do all this work." Which brings manufacturers to…

3. Start with a business problem you want to solve. "Part of helping people get started is helping them identify what are the business needs they have," said Beth Parkinson, Rockwell market development director, during an interview Thursday. Identifying key areas of concern—whether it's unscheduled downtime or security breaches—can give production companies a starting point toward when it comes to adopting new tools, policies, and procedures, Parkinson said.

Rockwell Automation CEO Keith Nosbusch

Rockwell Automation CEO Keith Nosbusch

And with respect to downtime: "Reducing unplanned downtime drives a rate of return faster than anything else," Moret said in a panel discussion on Tuesday. Business analytics is broadly about optimizing processes in real time and rolling up production data from across facilities, Moret said. But when it comes to helping drive a business case for better use of analytics, reducing unplanned downtime should be a top target.

4. Re: the ever-present security issue: Cover the basics first. Cybersecurity threats are continually evolving, yes. But don't get so obsessed with emerging threats that you neglect obvious risks, said Maciej Kranz, VP of Cisco's corporate technology group, on Tuesday. 

"The vast majority of attacks are exploiting known vulnerabilities," he said. Implementing well-known solutions to well-known problems and embedding security at the architectural level can help prevent a majority of issues, Kranz suggested.

"Security is not an add-on; it's not an overlay," he commented.

What's more, all personnel need to be aware of their security responsibilities, panelists urged. (For example, make sure team members aren't plugging in personal USB drives to network-connected devices.) Said panelist Jeff Jones of Microsoft: "Your security also rests on people who are not your security people."

The people part of the equation—the buy-in needed to help organizations accomplish what they want to accomplish—was another refrain heard throughout the event. And that brings us to:

5. "Leadership and culture are just as important as technology." General Mills' Wetzel made the comment in talking about his company's journey to using technologies to facilitate decision-making that is fact-driven rather than opinion-driven. A familiar sentiment? Sure. Worth repeating? Absolutely.

"Probably the biggest thing I've seen at General Mills is this is primarily about leadership," Wetzel said. Those who hold the power of the purse need to see clear, specific connections between infrastructure and training investments and reduced downtime, lower costs, etc., he said, and it's up to those who are championing these investments to draw in the lines. "You have to be able to connect the dots," he said. "If you can't find a leader that embodies that, then you be the leader."

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