Robert P. Collins, President and CEO,
GE Fanuc Automation North America, Inc., Charottesville,
Collins joined GE in 1960 after receiving an
electrical engineering degree from Manhattan College. He spent 20 years
with GE's aerospace operations, specializing in radar, electrical systems,
and instrumentation products. He received a patent for liquid crystal
displays. Before taking his present position, he was vice president and
general manager of GE's electric automation controls operations.
Proprietary automation technology is a noose around the neck of factories, says Collins. He sees open architectures as the wave of the future.
What trends do you see in factory automation and manufacturing?
Collins: Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and computer numerical controls (CNCs) are the main solution for real-time control. The most noticeable trends in both areas are open-architecture systems, higher level programming languages, and pervasive application of man-machine interfaces-all windows-based. As control products' power and performance continually increase, cost and equipment size are continually decreasing. In addition, diverse interfaces and I/O options, especially intelligent ones, are increasingly available and popular.
We also see growing use of personal computer hardware and operating systems, but those systems haven't matured enough for true real-time control applications. We believe it will be only after the year 2000 that they will be used for real-time control, and even then it will make sense only in selected applications.
When will American manufacturing adopt a true open architecture for automation equipment?
A: The short answer is-when other suppliers are willing to step forward and truly embrace this concept. Open architecture and open systems have been a key strategy that GE Fanuc has embraced for many years to improve our customers' productivity. Other market leaders in factory automation are holding their customers back by forcing them to use proprietary systems for applications that would benefit greatly from an open architecture solution. In reality, customers are allowing the proprietary-driven supplier to tighten the noose of proprietary technology on their factories by this approach.
Q: We hear a lot about partnerships these days. What are the greatest benefits of partnerships between OEMs and their suppliers?
A: Shorter design and manufacturing cycles that benefit both OEMs and their suppliers are key benefits. We've found partnerships helpful in breaking down the barriers to a faster time-to-market cycle. Partnerships allow the OEM to gain access to technology, and in turn, allow the supplier to add value to the design of the machine. For example, our partnership with Husky, a world leader in injection-molding machines, calls for us to provide controls and software for their equipment. Our boundary-less design team, composed of people from both companies, has cut through traditional sup-plier/vendor barriers, speeding up the work while keeping its cost down.
Q: How will the consolidation among large end users in the defense industry affect automation-equipment suppliers like GE Fanuc?
A: Our relationships and strengths have been with the large defense firms, so this additional consolidation will just serve to further strengthen those relationships. The remaining defense contractors' main mission will be to help the DOD stretch the ever-shrinking defense budget dollars further. This country will have to maintain a smaller, smarter, more mobile defense force. Because like it or not, we are the stabilizing force around the globe and that role will not diminish in the short term.
What role do you see for government in encouraging investment by industry in productivity-enhancing equipment?
A: Manufacturing remains the prime driver of our economy and standard of living. We cannot get the productivity improvement needed for long-term economic growth simply by shrinking, cutting, and tightening our manufacturing infrastructure. The lack of investment capital is acute among small-to-medium-sized manufacturers (less than 500 employees). Companies this size represent the vast majority of all U.S. manufacturing establishments and generate the majority of new manufacturing jobs. We need a bold new national agenda to nourish our manufacturing base and to train our people, before we lose our position of strength in the industrial world.