July 2008

IT, engineers: A match made in automation

By Gregory Hale, InTech, Editor

You have seen it all before. Your company is hitting a rough patch. Maybe your sales are down, or your productivity has dropped, or marketing just is not getting the message. Whatever.

The next thing on the company's agenda is to get everyone together to figure out what is going wrong. You do not need a massive overhaul, just a few tweaks here and there and you will be cooking on all six cylinders again.

If you are at a positive company, the meeting discussing the problems runs along, and there is good give and take. A resolution just evolves naturally.

If you work at a company that focuses on the individual and not the greater good, the meeting ends up being a free for all with one personality trying to out ego the next. What a nightmare.

The same is true about the convergence of manufacturing and IT. Bringing the two together is like a Wilfred Brimley oatmeal commercial: "It's the right thing to do." It is also inevitable.

In a simplistic version, IT is more involved with the business side of the enterprise, and engineering remains engaged with plant floor automation. As manufacturers need data from the plant floor to help increase efficiency and productivity throughout the enterprise, there now needs to be an AutoIT side to get both sects together.

"Engineers are going to have to be IT savvy," said Enrique Santacana, president and chief executive of ABB Inc., region manager of ABB North America, during his company's 2008 ABB Automation World Conference & Exhibition in Houston.

The schism that exists between the IT side and engineers is real, but it is not insurmountable, said Eric Cosman, engineering solutions architect at The Dow Chemical Co., in Midland, Mich., during the Manufacturing IT Forum in Cleveland, Ohio.

"If you get the relationship right, the rest is easier," he said. "It's all about relationships."

While Cosman is right, it is about relationships, it is also all about communicating the company's ultimate goal and knowing how to get there.

"You have to look at what generates the wealth," said Clifford Pedersen, the former manager of product production processes at Suncor Energy Inc. "IT doesn't generate the wealth.

What we pull out of the ground generates the wealth."

Suncor is one of the leading oil producers in the Oil Sands project going on in Northern Canada.

"If you don't help generate the wealth, then you can be a hindrance to the company," Pedersen said. It is easy to understand why there is a conflict, he said. IT has different priorities. IT wants system and data integrity and to protect the system. IT also feels it is not in a time critical environment. Manufacturers, on the other hand, focus on safety. They want to protect the system, and they must work in real time where there are no disruptions.

"IT's role is to maintain the business. If they forget that then they become an obstacle to the business," Pedersen said. The issue of engineers working with IT is not a new concept.

"We have been talking about this for a decade, but we have not had the sense of urgency to get it all together," Cosman said. "Some progress has been made, but there is no real sense of urgency.

"Operational excellence is the objective, and excellence comes from playing to your strengths and working with partners," Cosman said. "Real partners don't keep score."

Talk to me: ghale@isa.org or (919) 990-9275.