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Beth Stackpole
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Mainstream trajectory
Beth Stackpole   1/17/2012 7:06:58 AM
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The real takeaway from reading this very spot-on automation trend wrap-up is that plant floor contral and automation systems are definitely following in the footsteps of mainstream enterprise business systems in terms of leveraging the same new technology hot buttons. Advances in graphics (i.e., gaming-like capabilities), cloud computing, smart software, and remote monitoring functionality are all poised to radically change how the plant floor is run and monitored and bring far greater efficiencies and transparency to plant floor operators.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   1/17/2012 11:22:39 AM
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Yes, and the benefits are measurable. That's always been critical in plant operation. The benefits always have to be measurable or the tools don't get deployed. In the case of recent technology the benefits come in reduced energy consumption, increased uptime, less unplanned maintenenace and less maintenance altogether, quicker changes, and improved communication from supply through the delivery of finsihed materials.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   1/17/2012 3:54:08 PM
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Rob, thanks for the overview. Looks like some pretty exciting trends and new developments to watch for. I'm especially interested in increasing simulation: it's good to see this powerful technology put to very practical uses in factories. I also liked the diagrams in the Connected Automation System and Cloud Computing in Automation slides. If a picture can say 1,000 words, a diagram can say 5,000.


Charles Murray
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Charles Murray   1/17/2012 7:14:00 PM
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Yes, the plant floor is definitely following in the footsteps of mainstream enterprise business systems. The question is, how much will this trend accelerate when plants who aren't yet using Ethernet finally migrate to Ethernet-based automation systems? Rockwell Automation claims that only about 60% of the equipment they sell is Ethernet-based. What happens when the other 40% finally make that move?

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   1/19/2012 1:58:26 PM
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Good question, Chuck. I would think the difference between the 60 percent and the 40 percent of Rockwell implementations can be tracked along greenfield versus brownfield plants. Ethernet is likely going into most new plants as well as some upgrades at existing plants. But I'll bet a lot of the existing plants are not going to Ethernet with their upgrades.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   1/25/2012 2:17:35 PM
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Rob, that division sounds a lot like what I've heard about using Ethernet for machine vision networks: it's being deployed in new systems, and not so much in existing ones, because of the difficulty of re-engineering and re-configuring hardware and software, as well as training.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   1/25/2012 3:22:56 PM
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That makes sense to me, Ann. Given that, the advanced technology is going into plants in Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. That's where the majority of greenfield plants are.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   1/26/2012 4:44:09 PM
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Rob, I don't know the geographic distribution of where new machine  vision installations are going in vs older installed base. What I do know, though, is that there are still a lot of older analog camera systems in Asia, especially Japan, so that's not considered an area where GigE is likely to take hold, at least for awhile.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   1/27/2012 2:44:53 PM
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That makes sense, Ann. Most of the new plants are going up in low-cost labor geographies. Japan has a very mature manufacturing base as well as high-cost labor (compared with emerging Asia).

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   1/27/2012 3:22:19 PM
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Thanks for that info Rob. That means it's possible--although not necessarily likely--that newer machine vision interface standards might go into the emerging economy geographies. But not necessarily the more complex ones, like GigE, which require more expertise. It's not a clear picture, anyway, from the MV standpoint.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   1/27/2012 3:26:00 PM
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There is probably a factor of how complex the products getting manufacturied are. The low-cost geographies tend to produce products that are commoditized. Complex medical products and military products are staying in North America.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   1/30/2012 11:50:39 AM
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Thanks, that makes sense. This is clearly a multi-variable equation! It's also good to know that there are any products being manufactured over here, and even better to know that they're complex and high-ticket items.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   1/30/2012 2:14:18 PM
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Yes, one of the secrets of U.S. manufacturing is that it's robust. We were the largest manufacturing country until just two years ago when China passed us. Our labor costs are coming down lately. This is partly because there is less union, so some of the cost is coming from lower worker wages. Plus, our plants processes are driving down the cost of manufacturing through automation.

Companies such as Texas Instruments are choosing the U.S. for new plants. The outsourcing wave is over, and now brand owners are thinking more in terms of locating plants near the markets. That means Eastern Europe for Europe and the southern U.S. for North America. So a good chunk of manufacturing is coming back to the U.S. recently. 

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   1/30/2012 2:32:16 PM
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Rob, thanks for this info. That's heartening and inspiring. I didn't know the offshoring wave had turned. I remember seeing hints of that a few years back and being cynical about those hints continuing and growing. I was at offshoring ground zero in tech writing in 2000-2001 when the news about it broke. We had 70% unemployment rates in that industry in that year. This was a huge industry crash, just before offshoring hit engineers. More recently, when wages started to increase in the Asian and other outsourced-to countries I hoped the wave would turn back, although it's unfortunate that it's at least partly because our own workers are getting lower pay. 

 


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   1/31/2012 12:40:22 PM
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Yes, I know what you mean. I was on the staff of Electric News during that crash. Companies were reporting 40% drops in business, almost overnight. Everyone was running to China without even thinking it through.

Some products won't come back (cellphones, laptops). But the rush is over according to outsourcing analyst firms. Some companies are coming back, some are deciding not to go to Asia.

With all the commody manufacturing in China, they will probably remain number one. But there is still tons of manufacturing here in the number two country.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   2/6/2012 2:28:52 PM
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That was a really scary time, wasn't it? Glad things have evened out more since then.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   2/6/2012 2:49:45 PM
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I agree Ann. It was shocking how fast it all happened. Overnight. Outsourcing was in full swing at the time, so the whole world was changing. 

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   2/6/2012 3:11:24 PM
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You know, Rob, what the tech writers union found out at the time was that major Silicon Valley employers had been gradually offshoring jobs for about 10 years and keeping it a huge secret. This was not rumors, but facts. They already had in the works the same plans for engineering jobs. By the time we found out what was happening, critical mass was being reached, so that's why such a huge dropoff happened so fast. It took a lot less than 10 years for the shift in engineering jobs, mostly because the infrastructure was now in place that could support offshoring of both job types. Apparently they started with tech writing because we had less of a clue what was going on than engineers and weren't thought likely to scream as loud (nor would anyone care as much if we did). Essentially the same thing had been going on with manufacturing, in parallel. I wrote a story about offshoring manufacturing as long ago as 1989 for Computer Design News.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   2/6/2012 3:24:01 PM
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Yes, I, too, remember this happening in the 1980s. Much of it then was toys. Electronics followed as the factories become more sophisticated and EMS companies grew substantial enough to win trust. The real rush that came in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it took on a new life. I remember vendors and distributors noting that companies were not even thinking it through.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   2/6/2012 3:53:29 PM
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You're right, a lot of low-priced consumer goods went offshore first in this huge manufacturing shift. It wasn't just assembly anymore, but the full bore. But what was changing in the late 80s was the fact that the entire assembly and manufacturing of all kinds of higher-ticket goods were going offshore, like electronics, as well as their entire support systems, including technical documentation and, eventually, much of engineering. I can remember attending several seminars in the early 2000s put on by professional organizations that were supposed to help tech writers and engineers somehow morph themselves into....accountants and real estate agents. I'm not kidding.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   2/7/2012 10:42:24 AM
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I hadn't heard that about herding engineers into other careers, Ann. Wow. I always thought there was a shortage of engineers in the United States.

I know a good portion of production engineering has shifted to Asia to follow the manufacturing, but I was under the impression that design engineering had remained in North America and Europe (with a few exceptions such as cell phones and laptops). I've heard that companies don't want their design engineering in Asia because of potential IP theft.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   2/7/2012 12:42:41 PM
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Right after tech writers were told to become accountants and real estate agents, engineers were told to become accountants and real estate agents. A year or so later, engineers were becoming tech writers, as the job descriptions for writers had "suddenly" changed. This was in Silicon Valley, and I don't know to what extent this all happened elsewhere. I would not have believed this if I hadn't seen it myself. And it was clearly a humiliating experience, so they may not have talked about it much. Also, that was pre-Internet days.

These engineers, BTW, were all senior engineers, which fact did not escape their notice. This was the last phase of downsizing in SV (and elsewhere), which flushed out many, many middle managers with experience (and higher salaries and retirement incomes/pensions which then disappeared), and then the specialists, such as engineers and marketing people, with experience (and...). And while some of those engineers were replaced by younger ones from other countries here, many were replaced by younger foreign ones in Asia. At one point, the buzz in SV was that only software engineering remained in the US. Many younger people, at least out here, were discouraged from going into EE or computer science because of this. The so-called "shortage" is a more recent phenomenon. We had some dialog about this in another comment's thread. To this day I don't believe there was a shortage then. 


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   2/7/2012 12:49:31 PM
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Nice piece of history. Thanks. You probably also remember the army of new tech writers that was assembled when the dot com boom soared in 1999. I remember they were called the 99ers. They came mostly from the newspaper world and many were fresh out of J school. They all lost their jobs in 2000. Me included. I was with E-Commerce Business (once a sister pub to Design News). 

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   2/7/2012 1:02:33 PM
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The tech writers I meant were the documentation people, not technology writers who are journalists or marcom writers. It was a huge Silicon Valley industry that began in the late 70s/early 80s, and consisted primarily of liberal arts majors who weren't being hired elsewhere, although there were also some wannabe engineers, and some were housewives (back when those existed in large numbers). Some of us started in the marcom end, some went right into documentation, a few had already been programmers. It was all print back then, so you had to be good at a lot of things besides writing. BTW, the same basic populations had earlier been recruited to become programmers and computer salespeople in the late 60s/early 70s. All of these industries were 99% contractors. And documentation, in particular, could also be done at home.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   2/7/2012 1:10:08 PM
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OK, I get it, Ann. I thought you meant journalists when you used tech writers. I remember there was tons of work in tech writing for documentation. Most of those I knew -- as you pointed out -- were from a liberal arts background. I did a bit of that in the early 80s for a company that transferred library records on online format for systems like Dialog, LexisNexis and McGraw Hill -- way before the WWW became public (thanks Al Gore).

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   2/7/2012 1:25:18 PM
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The terms can be very con fusing. That term, tech writers, has always thrown people outside the industry. The term, and the phenomenon, were apparently confined primarily to Silicon Valley. I usually use "technology writers" to mean the larger group of people who write about technology, whether its journalism, PR/marcom writing or tech docs. Many of us have done some of each during our checkered careers, and in SV, one's career is likely to have been highly checkered.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   2/8/2012 10:59:08 AM
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Yes, I actually use the same terms. There was something about the context of one of your messages that made it seem you meant technology journalists when you said tech writers. I'm right next two a national lab here in Albuquerque, so we have an army of tech writers working for Sandia Labs or its suppliers and partners. Plus there's a bunch just north of here at Los Alamos Labs. I find that tech writing is a different discipline altogether from journalism, barely sharing the same language.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   2/9/2012 2:00:26 PM
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Even though tech writers, non-journalists, took the biggest hit at that time, all technology writers suffered including journalists, as you apparently did, too. That's the last time I ever did any documentation-type tech writing. The industry basically morphed and shifted to people who know a lot of programming, as everything went online. Yes, it's a very different world with entirely different terms and even a different dialect, you might say.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Rob Spiegel   2/9/2012 2:31:40 PM
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Yes, things have changed dramatically in the last decade, especially in the last five years. The dot com pioneers were correct that they were changing the world. Many of them, however, got crushed in the process.

For technology journalists, opportunities have proliferated for those who moved online. Design News is a good example of journalism moving online. The print journalists -- especially those at newspapers -- either learned to write for the web or moved to a new profession. 

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Mainstream trajectory
Ann R. Thryft   2/10/2012 12:52:30 PM
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The move online has been a long and sometimes tortured road for many publishing companies and publications, both in and out of tech. Writing for the web has been one challenge, but I think one that's been at least as tough is figuring out how to shift the print ad revenue model to online revenue sources. I know there was a lot of discussion about that in the early days.


Alexander Wolfe
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Digital Factory of Future
Alexander Wolfe   1/17/2012 6:48:58 PM
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Alongside this article, I'd like to recomment that readers check out my story, Top 5 Roadblocks to the Digital Factory of the Future.  This is an important trend, the ability to rapidly adapt (repurpose) production lines, using graphical programming tools and networks PLCs to which software can be downloaded via network links. This is a big part of the ability to go rapidly from prototyping to production.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Digital Factory of Future
Ann R. Thryft   1/18/2012 12:42:47 PM
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Alex, thanks for the link to your article. What a fascinating trend! It makes me think of the production version of what IT has been working on for awhile, the "agile enterprise," or whatever they are calling it now, for BPM.




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