Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Texas and technology: A holiday for Morley


Most of my technical friends do not take holidays. Correction: Their holiday may be several hours in the woods, the theatre or riding a bicycle. Stress relief is usually an afternoon away from the computer.

My wife, Shirley, has a different idea. She insists that a holiday should be more than 24 hours long. So when I was asked by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) to attend a conference in San Antonio, Texas, Shirley suggested that we make the trip a short vacation. A suggestion by a wife is a command.

“But Shirley,” I said, “you would be bored listening to a conference about commercial technologies for maintenance activities. How to repair aircraft is not a subject of interest for you.”

“Nevertheless,” replied my bride, “we are going for a vacation in San Antonio for several days. You may attend the conference, and I will see Texas.”

So I browsed the web for information about San Antonio. The large city is the location of the Alamo, the site of the tip-over battle for the independence of Texas, and eventually the entry of Texas into the United States.

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A good friend gave me some advice. “When visiting a new city, take a professional tour. Many tours are available for low cost and, after a quick tour, you can choose your agenda.”

And that’s just what we did. After the city tour, we walked the River Walk. A river runs though the city and invites visitors to walk along the banks. A stone and cement walkway are on both sides of the narrow waterway with shops and clubs along the length. Music, restaurants and tour boats make the walk memorable.

We also toured the Alamo from three different dimensions. We first saw the IMAX version, then the stone version and finally another official Texas version. The Alamo was indeed a tipping point for Texas. We also saw countless missions and historical art. I’m glad I was able to fit some vacation time into the trip. But I always manage to give myself some work. Suddenly, the geek DNA inside my body spoke out. “Where is the present and where is the future shown here?” spoke these embedded code elements. “You have only seen piles of rocks and the accomplishments of the distant past. Make some contemporary observations.” And so I did.

San Antonio has three basic employers: tourism, medicine and government support. Tourists come with increasing frequency, medicine is stable and the government bases are shrinking. Where is the real economy? Can cities like San Antonio survive by swapping tourists? Much like gambling, it is not a viable economy for the state of Texas. Where is the future?

In my travels, I see much of this short-sighted opportunistic attempt to finance today. I seldom see an attempt to finance the future. The conference’s keynote speaker, Lt. General Mike Hough, former head of Marine Corps Aviation, brought this to my attention.

His concern was for the maintenance of his aircraft. It is expensive and slow to ship repairs across the globe and then back to the United States. The percentage of his helicopters in the air was abysmal. The major failure was in the cabling and communications inside the aircraft. I suggested wireless as a solution. The general exploded. “That will take 10 years. I need the aircraft now! We are flying with ‘your father’s Oldsmobile’ and we need to keep the equipment we have in the field operational.” He wanted me to solve today’s real problem, not the problem in the distant future. It took me a long while to appreciate his real issue. After all, the theme of the conference was maintenance.

Like San Antonio, I was not facing the present realistically. I was viewing the issues through rose-coloured glasses. The lesson from Texas was that illusions solve nothing. Organizations need vision and solutions. Blocking change is not a solution, and neither is living in the past. We must not drive our cars using only the rear view mirror. We must know where we are headed with a reliable vehicle.


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.