Industrial PC Timeline Marches On

How Automation Changed From Being a Tool to a Solution

By Jeremy Pollard

So, this time, the year was 1977. I graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto. I was asked to join the team at Allen-Bradley, which had this new fangled device called a programmable controller. I learned and observed, and supported that technology.

Right out of the gate, the battle cry was "It will replace jobs," as far back as 1955 with the flood of skilled immigrants from the U.K., as I wrote about last month.

SEE ALSO: A Canadian Perspective on Jobs

Our response was, "It will create new jobs. And even more than have been displaced, which won't be many. It replaces hazardous occupations, and improves consistency." It really was never about the money. At least, not then. Dick Morley's company Bedford Associates developed the Modicon 084, and the company became Modicon. That was in the 1970s, as well. Remembering that the IBM introduced its PC in 1981 will give you some perspective on the "tortoise" speed in the early days.

The journalistic collaborations took some time to ferment. And in 1992 both Morley and I started to write about automation. Jim Pinto also was writing, and these next two columns will share some of the issues that were at hand, which, hopefully, will explain some of how we got to where we are, and why India will get there faster.

I dealt with the nuts and bolts of the technology — applications, code, tools, utilities, etc. Not terribly exciting. Morley and Pinto were running more in the social and business side. This is where the treasure is.

So, now we move to the 1990s.

"We couldn't call it a computer," Morley laments. "It couldn't have an off switch. It had to run forever." Perception is everything. And, in this case reality and perception were the same.

In the five or so years that Morley wrote for Manufacturing Systems, there were many facets of his contributions. He writes of requests to enhance the ladder language, adding communications, database functionality, and data-collection possibilities. This language didn't change despite the wide acceptance globally, and the concept that anyone could program this tool was very compelling.

Global acceptance was swift because of this language, and because it wasn't a "computer." It remained in the control realm, and not a part of the IT realm.

Morley spoke of the future in terms of "a future of appliances," and "real time is fast enough." Imagine the thought processes of the innovators who could think that they could take their factory to a level that would be fast and accessible for anyone. They weren't thinking about job loss, but, rather, the solutions.

Morley was and is a visionary. Nothing was more profound when he talked about point-of-sale manufacturing. Imagine that you go to a car dealership, order your car, and pick it up the next day. The assembly could be done by the dealer. Whoa.

Model-based manufacturing is scalable. Process models were changing because of the PLC. Every application in any plant had automation potential in it. Automation changed from being a tool to a solution.

Once that happened, all hell broke loose. It was Morley's prose that allowed many worker bees to have a glimpse into the mind of an innovator and visionary. While a bit scary, I'm sure it gave some, if not most, the confidence and enthusiasm to move forward against the enemy, which, of course, is us.

He drew a line between marketing and engineering. It gave the engineering crowd at all levels a sort of purpose. It's OK to be one. He allowed the subject of automation to be exciting, which created very innovative applications, such a French-fry vending machine that was PLC-controlled.

These observations come from Morley's book titled "Out of the Barn." One of the funniest anecdotes, An Engineer's Logbook, details a project which takes on a life of its own. As a result of moving targets imposed by standards, marketing, and the C-level influences, an engineering budget was spiraling out of control. While the story is about a product for sale, the project's troubles indicate that no longer was the automation side owned by the techies. It was company owned.

They realized very quickly that we can be bigger, stronger, faster without much effort. All it takes is agile technology and automation. That's how we got here. It's Morley's fault. He gave different groups permission to get involved in the process of automation. It had arrived as a tool to do things better.

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