Open for Business

When it Comes to Control Technology, the Definition of "Open" Remains Open for Debate

 "Where we're actually involved with development of an open strategy, the initial implementation can be painful, but the long-term benefits are really what we're looking for here."

Open controls design follows a path that some members of our machine builder nation willingly came to embrace, while others were dragged into it, kicking and screaming, wondering what was in it for them.

How long has it been now, since we began to seriously recognize and deal with the concept, practice and use of open technology in machine control?

It's still a point of "non-consensus" that keeps coming up, continually irritating the machine builders who need to have a more unified conversation with suppliers and customers.

Some define "open" as using off-the-shelf components and standards-based software. Others will say it means a big group of suppliers all supporting the same subgroup of standards, so a specifier has a reassuring number of companies to choose components and software from. A few simply say that if you give them Microsoft-compatible product, that's open enough for them.

At Automation Fair in Milwaukee late last year, I sat in on one of the group conversations engaged the topic of open technology. A panel represented by a two suppliers, two standards groups, a market researcher and a user wandered around the subject, but at the end, I don't think any of us came away feeling we were any closer to a consensus.

However, one very useful kernel--that we forget about from time to time--did come out of the discussion. It centered around the comments of that lone user on the panel.

Ed Tworek is engineering group manager for controls, conveyors, robotics, and welding at General Motors. He made, in my mind, the most important point of all. He said that GM certainly is on the bandwagon to apply open standards and technologies, but he also emphasized, "GM is in the business to design, develop and sell great cars and trucks, not necessarily to develop the best control system in the world. Our job is to do it most cost-effectively." Defining open really seems to be a secondary issue for them. "The primary focus right now is not necessarily technology, but reducing costs."

It's not that he dismisses the importance of open technology. He knows it's an important tool for GM's business both today and tomorrow. "From a GM perspective, as a customer to most of the suppliers out there, open is really all about choice," he said. "It's about having a choice of what product to use and from what suppliers we acquire them in an open competitive environment." Open and competitive. If machine builders have those choices, I suspect most will endorse that description of open.

"Ed," came the fundamental question from the audience, "does it cost money or save money?" After a brief pause: "That's actually a very good question," he began. "At the beginning of the process of moving to open you are going to probably spend a little more." He feels that's the price of admission. "We're often on the bleeding edge, not just the leading edge," Ed said. "Where we're actually involved with development of an open strategy, the initial implementation can be painful, but the long-term benefits are really what we're looking for here."

On the strength of leveraging that open and competitive environment, Ed outlined GM's technology step-function battle plan, saying "We will take a step in our technology curve all at once in the implementation of a set of technologies, but then we'll stabilize and ride that for three to five, even seven years, so we benefit over the long term."

That's a path, open or otherwise, that I suspect most machine builders can follow.

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