Perry Marshall: What do you think are the most important industry technical developments that have happened in the last 40 years?
Tom Bullock: I assume you mean the controls industry and that would be since 1964. Before 1964, the vacuum tube was the active element of choice, so we have come a long way since then. In the early 1970s, we built a control using a CRT as the display. We were ridiculed for thinking that a TV could survive on a factory floor. In the late 1970s, we designed a PLC with motion control using computer chips.
In the 1980s, the personal computer found its way into controls and opened up a whole new world of software. In the 1990s, we saw the PC open doors to allow information exchange and control up and down the corporate hierarchy as well as sideways. It also extended outside the company to vendors, customers and service providers. And now, in the last five years, the Internet is blossoming as the major technical development.
Not only is information immediately available, but embedded web servers allow controls to be accessed from any place that has Internet connectivity. With laptop computers and satellite connection, access will soon be from anywhere.
Which was the most important? In their time, they were all important. But, since we tend to have short memories and since technology grows exponentially, we would have to conclude that the most recent is the most important. The Internet is changing the way controls are operated, updated, serviced, advertised, designed, sold and whatever other action verb I left out.
P.M.: What do you think about the massive shift to off-shore manufacturing?
T.B.: That doesn't worry me as much as staying on the forefront of technology. Commodities are basically sold on price. And much manufacturing is becoming a commodity, unlike how it was 50 years ago.
The key to the USA being a world leader is technology. A large number of the significant developments of the last 100 years have come from the USA. We need to ensure that it stays that way. I want to see North America remain strong for future generations and my own grandchildren. If we accept off-shore manufacturing and concentrate on technology, we will continue our world leadership.
P.M.: What is your opinion about the massive outsourcing of tech jobs and knowledge workers, such as programmers, to countries like India?
T.B.: The tech and knowledge worker jobs that are going to other countries are not the most creative ones. If we view all jobs as a hierarchy with pure commodity type jobs at the bottom and totally creative and high knowledge jobs at the top, we find that it continually grows upward with time because new tools (such as computers) make it possible for those at the top to expand their horizons.
What worries me is that politics will force us to invest our resources in the bottom half of the hierarchy instead of the top half. I cringe when I hear politicians say that we need to grow manufacturing jobs – a statistic that has been declining as a percentage of the workforce for 50 years. It is a changing world and spending vast sums to buck long-term trends is not the answer.
P.M.: What's the difference between the college and university grads of today and the ones you graduated with years ago?
T.B.: They don't have a slide rule hanging from their belt. Engineers today are much more systems-oriented as opposed to components-oriented. They see the bigger picture much better. In the 1960s, it was a major effort to automate a single machine. There were counters, flip-flops, I/O, displays, servos, etc., that had to be understood and designed. It was a major accomplishment just to get a machine running from punched paper tape or through manual input.
The engineers of today are using computers and connectivity techniques to automate all aspects of a business. They work at a computer terminal instead of in the lab with a soldering iron and a box of components. Is this good? Of course, because we are working on the front edge of technology with the latest tools. That is productivity.
P.M.: On one hand, vendors in the industrial controls business are fighting commoditization of all their technology–PLCs, motion controllers, MHIs, sensors, etc. So vendors must constantly innovate. On the other hand, customers resist new technology because it's risky. Where's all this heading?
T.B.: What a great question. In the production adoption cycle, customers are classified as innovators, early adopters and late adopters.
Innovators are selective with their vendors. Does the vendor have a track record for producing successful new products? During the early days of numerical control, the aircraft industry recognized the large savings possible in productivity, so they took the risk. Giddings & Lewis had a reputation for innovation, so it was not difficult to get customers to risk trying new products. Microsoft enjoys that type of reputation today.
The concept of open controls is a good illustration of risks. It was 10 years ago when we started talking about the concept of open controls. Open control would allow each vendor to do what he does best. One might envision a vendor for his I/O, another for HMI, a third for drives, a fourth for the main controller, several for software, etc. The key would be that these would all 'plug and play.'
The OMAC (Open Modular Architecture Control) organization was formed consisting of some of America's largest companies. Yet, the adoption of open control is progressing at a snail's pace. When discussing this with executives from large companies, they cite the high risk involved. Many have a single preferred vendor with hundreds of employees who are trained and working with that vendor. They are afraid of the finger pointing should a problem occur.
I am still betting on open controls and the Internet. As the Internet makes it possible to work on controls in customer sites from vendor locations, open controls become more feasible. The office environment has gone from where you selected a single vendor 25 years ago to one where there is a different vendor for each component. But, each office either has his computer guru to solve the interface problems or they have a local expert on call. This will happen in the plant environment with system integrators serving the role of the guru, and the integrators will use the Internet to get the answers they do not already have.
All the components you mentioned will continue to migrate to commodities. The challenge for the engineers will be to continue to integrate the enterprise and to include vendors, customers and services into that integration.
P.M.: What do you think is the 'next big thing' in motion control?
T.B.: Embedded web servers will be big, but there is something I have been hoping for, that no one seems to do much about. Let's call it MAAM for Machine Axis Analysis Module. Most drives have embedded computers in them, position feedback, and current (torque) feedback. It seems that these tools can be used to make drives a lot smarter in helping to keep the machine running properly.
For instance, there are three elements to the total torque that a motor provides an axis. There are the torque for acceleration, the torque to overcome friction, and the torque to do whatever work that machine axis must perform (such as pushing a drill through a metal block). By using learning techniques and mapping the axis for irregularities, the drive should be able to tell how much of each is being expended at any time.
If I have a constant horsepower application, the drive can take component of torque, multiply it by the speed and tell me how much horsepower I am delivering to the load at any time so I can adjust feeds to keep it constant. Also, with time, it can show me how my friction component has changed so I can foresee a bearing starting to deteriorate or an axis starting to bind at a particular point. There has been some work done on modelling a machine so that it can be run as productively and accurately as possible. The drive can be the caretaker of this model and even modify it as it sees things change. Self-tuning uses some of this information, but it is only scratching the possibilities. My partner, George Younkin, has done some good work on modelling, and his results show a lot of promise. If there is some drive company looking for a way to spend its R&D budget, give this some consideration.
Tom Bullock's company website is www.bullseyenet.com.
Perry Marshall is the contributing editor to Control Network. His company website is www.ccontrols.com.