As part of our anniversary look back at the content we've created over our 15-year history, we present the first column that Jeremy Pollard wrote in February 1999, as an OEM Insight guest columnist. In April 1999, he became the first Embedded Intelligence columnist, and he's been here ever since.
Can vendors, machine OEMs, and the OEM's customers sing in perfect harmony, as the song goes? In my view, absolutely not. Their agendas are totally different.
As an OEM making machines or full systems, you have an obligation and desire to provide your customers with the best possible product at a profitable price. You need to provide service for that product, as well as a migration path for your future products and services. Vendors are constantly pounding the OEM marketplace, since that market represents the largest potential return for sales investment. That's return for the vendor, not the OEM and not for your customers. How can you protect yourself against the sales-oriented vendor, and keep focused on your specific, and often unique, primary targets?
Customers look for solutions that make their end product more profitable with lower lifecycle costs, as well as all the normal needs like maintainability and low cost of ownership. Most of the time they don't care too much about the actual details of the control system if the process is up their alley. Maybe this makes the product or service the most important, and not the control system.
Take an example where your process technology is established and proven, as is your control system. Now, suppose a vendor of PC-based control presented its case for the benefits of the technology. This applies to all new stuff like bus networks, etc. Your customer base, however, is entirely PLC-knowledgeable.
Now you may be torn between accessing perceived benefits of this new technology, and risking the lack of acceptance from your customers. Easy choice, I think — the customer wins.
But now, take a second example. What about those customers who the vendor has been to see, and, as a result, the customer suggests that you change your control system? Has the vendor presented his case honestly? Remember that you will be the one to implement the solution. How will you know what the influences were on your customer?
The obligation you as an OEM have to your own organization is not necessarily that of the vendors or of your customers. Your needs are very different than the other two groups. So how can you keep from getting led down the garden path?
When General Motors forced the use of flowcharting in an engine plant project, the OEMs had it shoved down their throats. No choices there, but some swore never to use it again. They lost tons of dough because they were not familiar with the issues since they listened to the vendor and customer, and got "hosed."
Windows CE may be the next one down the line. There is no effective difference with Windows CE as compared to QNX or WindRivers' Tornado as an operating system. But the perceived benefits — and there will be some genuine development benefits—will most likely be presented in the best possible view for the group presenting it. If they make it sound as though it's good for you, be very suspicious. Prove to yourself that the worth and benefits of the technology will serve you best, and not the vendors, or customer for that matter.
This makes the issues surrounding the OEM and new technology varied and very different from the technology issues that affect the general-user public. The technology horizon is a changing landscape. It is estimated that technology half-life is now two years for control and computer software. Software has already been recognized as the future of control technology.
To make sure that you don't get snowed, it may be worthwhile to investigate the technology that you think you'll one day need before you actually need to use it. Investigate the products as well as the history of the supplier or suppliers involved. Remembering that you have to support any product you sell, it is important to weigh the longevity of the technology as well as the supplier.
Who in your company will be responsible for monitoring and evaluating technology? Someone has to!