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The PLC adventure Part 2: The marketing adventure


Last month, I discussed the adventure of design, physics and language when building the first PLC. Now we will enter the dark side – marketing.

I knew there was a market for a general solution. Each automation job I bid for in 1967 required a new specification and design. Each job was a tight custom fit to the application. Each customer wanted to narrowly define the design to reduce the parts costs. Even today, the user separates software and hardware costs. I wanted to get rid of the software and ignore hardware costs. We suspected that time and money could be reduced if we took a system approach to process control.

So the PLC was born, and it was time to market it. We targeted electricians and industrial engineers. We had no idea what we were up against.

The software solution for automation control typically specified a PDP-11 digital computer with a special real-time operating system. Although the concept was adequate, each design was custom. We were “non-responsive” to a request for a quotation. Our language, relay ladder logic (RLL), was not a standard language. In effect, we were bypassing the software department of the customer and going directly to the plant. The classic “non-invented here” reaction almost killed our company.

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So we went to Japan. Japan was an obvious market because they needed production tools. The country centred on productivity and not the latest software. The Japanese buyer purchased tactical tools, not process performance. Standards of performance versus fulfillment are the bane of innovation. In Japan, the drive is to perform no matter what. We now follow Japan in manufacturing management and systems.

It wouldnít be an adventure without the relationship factor. My wife remembers Seiichi Yaskawa from Yaskawa Electric helping us sand the ice in our driveway. While I went to the gravel pit with my backhoe, Shirley drove the dump truck and our Japanese senior engineer shovelled sand on the driveway. Shirley spun the big truck in a 180, and Seiichi thought this was wonderful. We suspect we succeeded in Japan because we were all thinking like children – we played well with others.

Another marketing memory sticks in my cranium. We went up to see Bryant, a company in Springfield, Vt. They build grinders for the machine tool industry. They asked what I had, and I said I had a controller for their grinder. To put it mildly, they were not interested. Remember, this was around 1970, and the machine tool industry was plagued by unreliable, unstable computer systems.

We delivered our first unit to Vermont. When I opened the trunk of my old self-healing Pontiac, the customer said, “Wonderful. It’s not another piece of pastel-coloured sheet-metal!” The look of the mechanical assembly communicated our philosophy of reliability. We truly connected the customerís experience with the product we were building. The user loved the rugged good looks. Itís kind of like a Clydesdale horse versus a thoroughbred. We built a Clydesdale.

More memories
The first PC (the original name) was shown in the basement of a Detroit building with a half dozen control companies. We built the programmable controller without any knowledge of a General Motors specification. The GM divisions, not top management, wanted performance, not standards. Lucky for us, we had designed something that the electrician wanted, not something abstract. The early design fostered by GM and Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) was clumsy. When we demonstrated our systems to the users, the GM/DEC computer was thrown out. Quantity orders followed from GM.

One of our big customers in the early days was General Electric (GE). We did not sell to them. It came “over the transom.” They wanted to rename the PC and sell it as a GE product. It was an unexpected order, but we accepted the deal, and they became a reseller for our product.

When I think back to our early sales team, I recall that most of them were hired from the user community. They understood the application and were also well muscled. (The early PLC was quite heavy.) The internal technology was a detail. Even today the user community does not know the operating system used in early PLCs. We hid the internals from the marketplace. We were building tools, not toys. Much like the iPod, the internals are not the key to sales.

To get the order, we had to sell. Our sales instructions were to sell; if there was no sale, lower the price; if there was still no sale, give it to the customer; and if there was still no sale, get the person standing in the way fired (that actually happened once).

The adventure is the key–not the technology. Remember, when designing a product, think of the strategic physics and science involved along with the human coupling.


Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at morley@barn.org.