Melrose Park, IL--In 1982, when Julius Sparacino and Nicholas Gihl founded Total Control Products Inc., they noticed that industrial machines were beginning to look like Christmas trees. The infiltration of PLCs into industrial automation bolstered the manufacturing machine's functionality, but, as the number of functions increased, so did the number of status lights.
To address this, Total Control developed an alphanumeric display called the Smart Display. Smart Displays substituted a simple message for the traditional flashing light that forced engineers to go searching through user manuals to find out what was wrong. Having made that breakthrough, Sparacino and Gihl immediately decided to develop a graphical operator interface (OI) that would substitute pictures for the words in the message, making it even easier for the operator to figure out the cause of problems. The new technology, a CRT-based software, was dubbed Smart Screen.
The next step involved developing a flat-panel version of Smart Screen called Smart Touch, which catapulted annual sales from $5.2 million in 1990 to more than $10 million in 1993. "At that time, Julius and I couldn't do it all ourselves," says Gihl. Therefore, Gihl took over as president in 1994, and began re-structuring the business.
Re-focus on distribution. After years of so called "feature creep," the Smart Screen's functionality had increased to the point of ultimate flexibility with ultimate confusion. The founders had decided that selling through distributors was their best path toward sustained growth, and distribution required simplicity. So they developed the Quick Panel, which eliminated 90% of the Smart Screens functionality, but provided distributors with an appliance-like product that was easy to demonstrate. "I considered it a gamble at first, but trading functionality for simplicity gave us the leverage we needed to grow," says Gihl.
Understanding the needs of end-users like Ford, GM, and Ralston-Purina remains an essential selling point for Total Control. However, today the key is packaging automation technology for distribution, says Frank Wood, vice president of product development and marketing. "It's easier to sell appliances than technologies," he adds. The product must be straightforward, simple to demonstrate, and easy to use.
With about 200 distributors averaging 10 sales people each, everything done in the sales and marketing effort is designed to get those 2,000 sales people motivated. The growth of the company really comes down to two things, says Gihl: building the distribution channel, and the mechanisms to motivate and support that channel; and continually defining technologies and products that are appropriate for that channel.
Free-wheeling culture. Gihl's open-door policy fosters an atmosphere of trust and responsibility. He believes that hiring the best people pays off in the long term. "I look for self-starting experts that can multi-task," says Gihl. A "bottoms-up" style of management speeds decision making, minimizes lost opportunities, and lets resources flow between projects. Everyone on the team seems to have a good sense of where the company is going, and what it will take to get there.
"We focus on building products that make our distributors successful," says Wood. The free-wheeling atmosphere with minimal constraints or imposed structure was balanced in December 1995 by ISO 9001 certification. "We work from a set of fairly general requirements, and are free to explore many possible solutions," says John Skach, software engineering manager. "To save on time-consuming rework, we implement the minimal set of features to meet a given set of requirements, then let the users tell us what to change next," he says.
Total Control offers a wide range of graphical operator interfaces. All are programmed with QuickDesigner, a software package that reportedly makes it easy to add new features to both the off-line editing environment and the run-time control environment. QuickDesigner permits the user's out-of-the-box experience to be simple yet versatile, says Skach. Most users can bring the product up quickly, then experiment to discover its capabilities at their own pace.
Global strategy. "As the controls market matures, and opportunities emerge for new players, the challenge is to focus our resources in this high-change environment," says Gihl. Development of new products, judicious acquisitions, restructuring, and increasing worldwide marketing activities will help position Total Control to take advantage of such opportunities as they arise.
Two recent acquisitions have broadened Total Controls market presence. Last January's acquisition of Cincinnati Dynacomp compliments the existing product line by adding more low-level OI, and the June 1996 acquisition of Taylor Industrial Software (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) adds Taylor's pc-based control software to the product mix.
Total Controls strategy has paid big dividends. The company posted record sales gains of 45% for fiscal 1996, to $25 million from $17 million in fiscal 1995. Fourth quarter revenues totaled $6.96 million, compared to $4.9 million for the previous year, an increase of nearly 42%. Annual revenue increases have averaged 35% over the past four years.
Total Control's product mix now provides complete automation solutions for all customers, regardless of their control scheme and application, including seamless links from control and MES levels to higher level planning systems, such as MRP II. "What we are doing is locking up the entire OI market for our distributors," says Gihl.