Peers and SIs Are Good Sources

Writers and teachers can point you in the right direction, but they almost never are the experts when it comes to machine automation.

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By Dan Hebert, PE, senior technical editor

There are two options when confronted with an important decision: get help from an expert or become the expert.

Sometimes the right option is self-evident. If you’re deciding whether or not to switch jobs, you are the de facto expert. You can and should discuss the matter with those close to you, but in the end no one can duplicate your personal insight. When it comes to major decisions about your career, you must be the expert.

The same goes for decisions involving your work projects. Should I do this part of the project myself, or should I have my subordinate do it? How thoroughly should the software be tested? No one else knows the project as well as you do, you’re the boss of the project, and you must be the expert.

However, no one can be an expert in every area, and no one should strive to be. So, it’s often necessary to find someone more knowledgeable. The first trick is to know when to find an expert. The second trick is to find the right one.

Your career, your personal relationships, your projects—these are areas where you should be the expert. You also might need to become the expert in a technical matter very specific to your particular machine automation application.

But for technical matters that are generic to the machine automation industry, it might be best to find an expert. If your company is switching from homegrown HMI software to an off-the-shelf product, it’s probably best to find an expert who has done the same thing.

Take this example a little further, and we can see how we might find the expert. The first thing we need to know is where to look, and eliminating pretenders to the throne is a good way to start.

The right expert almost never will be a vendor of the product in question. Deciding on the best HMI by talking only with HMI vendors is not a good idea for obvious reasons. In the end, you will buy from a vendor, and you must speak with them to learn about their products, but you simply cannot rely on them for impartial advice. Relying on vendors for impartial advice is a rookie mistake, one I made early in my former career as a machine automation professional, and a mistake that I rue to this day.

The right expert almost never will be someone like me—a person who writes about or teaches technology, but doesn’t live day-to-day with implementation and results. Writers and teachers can point you in the right direction—in fact, that’s the purpose of this article—but they almost never are the experts when it comes to machine automation and other technical matters.

So, we need to look for someone who frequently implements the technology we’re evaluating, and who doesn’t have a direct financial interest in a certain outcome. Where might we find such a person?

The best sources are your peers—machine automation professionals who already have gone through an HMI selection process for their machines. They’re living with the results of their decisions, and there certainly are some things they would have done differently, if they knew then what they know now.

They might have chosen a different version of the same vendor’s product, or they might have bought a competing product. There’s not enough time in life to make all the mistakes yourself, so it’s better to learn from and not repeat the mistakes of others.

Our AutomationXchange event provides a venue where you can find industry peers. We organize meetings at the event where machine builders talk about their specific experiences in different areas of technology. If you hear someone relate a situation similar to yours at AutomationXchange or at another industry event, they may just be the expert you’re looking for.

The other main source for expert advice is the truly independent system integrator. These integrators can’t be solely aligned with any specific vendor, and must be free to recommend what they think is the best solution. The integrator also must have selected, installed, and supported HMI solutions for multiple machine builder applications. If both these criteria are met, you just might have found yourself an expert.

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