Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Automation, innovation and soup: Morley takes on Houston for ISA Automation Week


Not too long ago, I was asked by Pat Gouhin, the fearless director of the International Society of Automation (ISA), to give the closing talk at the 2010 ISA Automation Week Technology and Solutions Conference held in Houston, Texas in October. A chance to speak unfettered? How could I resist? More on my gig later.

I made my way down to Houston like I have in October for the last several years for the association’s annual conference; though this year, the format was different, with more of a focus on the technical sessions rather than the exhibition. The show opened with keynote speaker Dean Kamen, inventor supreme. He is one of the founders of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization to promote the recognition of engineering and technology among young students. His "business" model is based on the idea that sports in school gets the attention of students, so maybe we can do the same with technology. So far, it’s working.

The room was packed during his keynote; it was standing room only. Kamen talked about his successful and failed innovations. These innovations were disruptive because the vector of solution was new. Most inventions are directed towards improving a product already in existence. Better, cheaper and faster are not disruptive. Establishing a new domain is disruptive. He, as well as other innovators, doesn’t seem to take singular credit.

The story of the singular, unsupported, disruptive innovator is often fiction, but it makes for a good story. Most important innovations, however, are similar to the stone soup fable, which goes something like this: Long ago, a village was visited by hungry travellers. The travellers wanted food, but the villagers did not offer any. "We are also hungry and do not wish to share our meager food with you," said the villagers. "Alas," said the travellers, "then we will share our meal with you. We will make stone soup." The travellers then borrowed a pot, filled it with water and found the "perfect stone" for the pot. They put the stone in the pot, and after a time, tasted the soup. "It is fine," commented one of the travellers, "but it needs a little seasoning." A villager came to the pot and volunteered a carrot. "Better," said the second traveller, "but maybe an onion would help." Soon a tasty, nutritious soup was boiling in the pot. Both villagers and visitors were fed with the stone soup.

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Innovators are the visitors to the market. They find the right stone and borrow the pot. The whole community makes the soup real and nutritious. It takes a village to raise a child – and to achieve progress.

Later, three of Manufacturing AUTOMATION‘s columnists – myself, Jeremy Pollard and Ian Verhappen – gathered for food and conversation. We were all impressed with the conference – small, tight and with quality attendees. Some of the exhibitors were complaining about the lack of hard customers, but ISA may stick with the technical rather than the exhibition format.

I attended other sessions, mostly centered upon asset management and IT needs, and participated in a panel discussion on wireless. I tried to convince the attendees that 50 different wireless standards should be adequate for M2M applications. Most of us use Amazon – one of the world’s biggest retailers – with confidence. We perform stock and banking transactions fearlessly. Why do we need even more standards? My message fell upon closed ears. Oh well. 

My closing bookend performance was pure entertainment. Pat wanted me to talk about my life, failures and opinions in an open format – a risky assignment. Lucky for me, I had a second banana, Carol Schafer (senior consultant, ISA Conferences and Events). She kept me on track and organized the session. She used a western format with some costuming, and I bought a western-style hat that fit my big head. We gave out bandanas, chocolate and asked for single words from the audience. If a word was accepted, we told a story centered on that word. Carol had backup suggestions in case I stumbled. We performed for several hours right after the last buffet dinner. Carol composed and played songs about geeks and me. She got a standing ovation. Wow.

We all had good food, in a good hotel, with good people. See you next year.


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.