Beckhoff Automation president on what's driving the company forward

Kevin Barker shares the keys to growth that are guiding the company in these 7 questions

Beckhoff Automation appointed Kevin Barker as president mid-February and he will manage Beckhoff business operations across the United States. Barker takes over the leadership role that Aurelio Banda has held for four years. 

As president, Barker will oversee all sales, engineering, marketing and administrative operations from the headquarters in Savage, Minn.

Over an eight-year tenure at Yaskawa, Barker led multi-national sales teams with the responsibility to develop complex industrial markets, large sales channels and advanced motion control offerings, including the company’s lineup of EtherCAT servo drives. 

According to Barker, the prospects for developing the market in general automation technology and a rapidly evolving portfolio of motion control solutions were major factors in his decision to join Beckhoff Automation and lead the subsidiary into a new era.

Kevin Barker answered 7 questions about the company and how technology is affecting the industry.

What are three key things that a machine builder, system integrator or manufacturer should know about your company?

First, Beckhoff is more than a technology provider. We have the dedicated focus and technical expertise to help customers apply those products and solve their unique challenges. Yes, Beckhoff invented and continues to supply a wide range of innovative automation products. Perhaps more importantly, our application and sales engineers are excited to become a part of the engineering process. Whether our customers build machines for semiconductors or snack foods, packaging or petrochemicals, we assist with every aspect of a project from architecture and design to implementation and commissioning. About one-half of all Beckhoff USA employees work in an engineering capacity. This includes everything from telephone technical support, field service, application engineering, training and sales consulting. We work to enhance our customers’ application know-how and empower them to move to a more competitive position.

Next, Beckhoff is a champion of open, interoperable solutions, and has always been at the forefront of this issue. From the first PC-based machine controller that Hans Beckhoff created in the 1980s to the release of the EtherCAT open industrial Ethernet system in 2003 and beyond, leveraging open technology to create robust industrial applications is core to our philosophy. Our belief in the value of open systems extends beyond our products into our advocacy for open communication protocols, such as MQTT and OPC UA. This matters to our customers, because they, like Beckhoff, are disrupters in their industries. They want to create paradigm shifts, not just the incremental changes made possible through more conservative, traditional options. Open solutions help companies leverage the entire global engineering community to put the power to truly change the game within reach.

The final important thing to know about Beckhoff is that we are uniquely structured for innovation. Because we are a privately held company, and because of our direct sales model, we are able to reinvest a higher percentage of profits than our competitors in research, development and engineering. This is important because customers are looking for new ways to respond to our changing world. We have become a critical technology partner in the e-commerce revolution, the high-tech entertainment industry and the automotive industry’s transformation to develop electric vehicles. Beckhoff is excited about this, because we’ve always had something different to offer.

Although I am a recent addition to the Beckhoff team, these values are not. Partnering with customers, providing open solutions and discovering new ways to work smarter have been guiding principles since Hans Beckhoff started the company. His philosophy has always been to empower people and companies to solve unique challenges by leveraging new automation technologies. My goal as the new leader of Beckhoff USA is to make sure we carry out this mission with our customers every day.

What new technologies are driving your product development and why?

Beckhoff is looking ahead by developing new technologies to meet the needs of engineers, both today and in the future. It’s often said that 90 percent of all data that exists in the world today was created in the last two years — this is according to a statistic from IBM. How do companies take advantage of all the information they now have at their fingertips? The ability to create, transfer, control, visualize, analyze and store information via open global standards is a key driver for us. Data is useless without those capabilities, and the Beckhoff product architecture offers real advantages.

One recent technology introduction that significantly boosts data transmission is EtherCAT G, which will provide gigabit communication, and the next step in the initiative, EtherCAT G10, will take data throughput further with 10-Gbit/s performance. This will provide the communication bandwidth needed for the most extreme applications with highly complex vision, motion control and high-end measurement requirements. Most importantly, this evolution will not replace the current 100-Mbit/s EtherCAT standard or require any re-engineering or reconfiguration. The unique EtherCAT G branch controller model will allow traditional EtherCAT all the way up to EtherCAT G10 to work on one heterogeneous network. This means 100-Mbit/s EtherCAT will remain totally stable on version 1.0, just as it has been since 2003.

Another key technology driver for us is looking at how we can combine our traditional areas of expertise — which include machine control, motion control, industrial networking, software development and manufacturing — to deliver more value. By leveraging our expertise, we can deliver highly flexible electro-mechanical solutions that require a fraction of the customer’s resources to deploy. This is an exciting area for Beckhoff, and we look forward to unveiling more products in this area in the near future.

How does the Industrial Internet of Things figure in your business strategy?

IIoT has become a major focus at Beckhoff. This started with technology concepts demonstrating how standard, off-the-shelf PC-based control hardware can connect to the cloud with programming handled in the same engineering environment as the machine control code. Numerous Beckhoff Industrial PCs are now Microsoft Azure Certified. This concept has evolved and grown to include an Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS) certified IoT Bus Coupler that quickly establishes cloud connectivity via a simple web-based configuration page — no programming needed.

PC-based control technology is inherently suited to IoT functionality. PCs have been the leading driver of automation technology (AT) and IT convergence since 1980. This is very similar to the frequently discussed IT and operational technology (OT) convergence in digitalization conversations. Beckhoff has decades of experience applying Microsoft, Intel and other IT standard technologies in industrial applications. We see IIoT as the next logical progression of this technology convergence.

How will machine automation and controls alter the way companies staff their operations in the future?

We are witnessing a changing of the guard in the engineering world, with many experienced engineers retiring faster than new ones are entering the field. To combat this challenge, customers are moving to free themselves from legacy, proprietary hardware platforms and programming standards and are instead embracing modern open hardware platforms and programming languages.

On the plant floor, customers are leveraging more technologies than in the past. For example, in the past, operators, technicians and managers could literally walk through the factory floor and hear how well a machine was functioning — such as if a bearing was going bad. They had learned to listen for subtle, audible changes and learned how to interpret those sounds to diagnose potential problems. As that expertise and experience becomes less available, incoming engineers can use advanced measurement or other solutions to extend and improve on those practices. Beckhoff provides the ability to measure, analyze, predict and enhance machine performance, quality and availability. With cloud and edge computing, the data can be shared across multisite operations and analyzed more closely to compare machines, lines and plants around the world. These technologies are all available now from a single vendor in an open hardware and software ecosystem.

How is the development of software solutions impacting your requirements for hardware?

Hardware and software development go hand in hand and affect each other in profound ways at Beckhoff. Consider the fact that Beckhoff develops motherboards in-house for our IPCs. This is so we have complete control and predictability in terms of how TwinCAT software runs on Beckhoff IPCs across the entire product portfolio from entry level to high end. Advances in multi-core and many-core PC processor technology have opened up new worlds of features and functionality to standard PC-based control. This started with one IPC being able to handle PLC, motion control and HMI and now expands out into the realm of Scientific Automation, which covers high end measurement, condition monitoring, robotics and vision. More recent advances in IoT concepts have only expanded the deep pool of tasks one modern IPC can handle because the hardware and software capabilities have also grown exponentially. The future migration path is assured at Beckhoff because TwinCAT 3 was developed to fully accommodate many-core processor architectures up to 256 cores when available in the future.

As engineering and IT continue their convergence, which one is and/or software will be making your products better, faster and easier to use?

Both are driving advances in our automation technologies, but which one ultimately makes a major difference depends on the users. Whether an engineer’s background is in IT or more traditional PLC programming, many options are available to make it easier to program machine control logic and connect machines to the cloud or other high-level business systems. Either way, we meet engineers where they are at in the same TwinCAT environment. For example, we support very traditional ladder logic programming in IEC 61131-3 but also support object-oriented extensions, C# or HTML5 for responsive, web- and mobile-enabled HMI.

Beckhoff can adapt and iterate more quickly whenever Microsoft, Amazon or Google introduces new cloud technologies because we rely on similar hardware platforms and operating systems. This allows us to focus on platform performance, stability and reliability as well as application expertise.


Looking into the future, how will technology change your company over the next five years?

New technology drives everything we do — from R&D to new category-defining product introductions and market share gains. In the near term, Beckhoff is investing heavily in the addition of new sales and engineering personnel across the U.S. We are also seriously expanding infrastructure by adding new offices in Philadelphia, Boston, Denver, Houston and a location to be determined in Florida. I have to make decisions about which things to prioritize, but adding local offices with a primary focus on large training spaces and application engineering labs will continue to be important for us and our customers.

Globally, you can expect significant new technology introductions that not only expand the Beckhoff product portfolio in existing categories, but also break into new industrial device segments, and in some cases, create new ones. These exciting developments become reliable competitive advantages for our customers. The only way we can be successful is if our customers are successful, and I will continue to drive dynamic partnerships with them.

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