Chicken or Egg Technology

Feb. 24, 2003
Do you try to figure out a use for a new technology just because you found out it's there? Or, do you have a problem, and then go looking for a technology that might solve it?

A reader recently told me, in no uncertain terms, I should only write about brand new technologies, so that they could be evaluated for use.

Well, we do a lot of that here and will continue to. This shouldn't be news to us. So, I mostly agree with the reader's comments. However, writing about new technology presents a problem. Do I write about emerging technology and hope somebody finds an industrial application for it? Or, do I write about those new technologies that industry has already found applications for? So, where does new technology come from, how do we find it, and how does it get implemented?

How about you? Do you try to figure out a use for a new technology just because you found out it's there? Or, do you have a problem, and then go looking for a technology application that might solve that problem?

Many times in industry presentations, I ask, "If you knew the Internet was going to be as pervasive as it is today, would you have designed your control systems differently yesterday?" Receiving strange looks back from that is pretty common. We are so used to looking in the rear-view mirror for guidance.

All things being equal, we do tend to look at the present and the past more than the future. Usually it works like this: I need a product to do this (whatever this is), so I go and find it.

I'm reminded of Wonderware--the company that set the HMI world on its ear when InTouch hit the market shortly after Windows 3.0 came out. Seems they were working with Microsoft in parallel, so when the "new technology" arrived they were positioned for accelerated growth. Great work, if you can get it.

They led the market and became a de facto standard, way ahead of the competition. Companies not paying attention were still trying to create the next DOS-based system or, heaven forbid, an OS/2 solution.

The industrial OEM community doesn't have the luxury of knowing what's in the automation supplier's lab, let alone what's in prototype. Market positioning and market share drive those decisions for the vendors.

The ISA Show in Chicago this past fall was a venue where I thought I might find that new product or solution. However, the vast array of exhibitors didn't produce a very large crop of new technologies or products.

So off I went to Automation Fair in December. I hoped to see some very neat and new stuff. My hopes were dashed. As my fearless editor wrote in December, most machine control systems are still running legacy controls. True enough.

So why would I (if I was a control vendor) want to destroy my market by producing something really new? A lot of customers want incremental change, not order-of-magnitude change. Is it in my best interest to keep my customers a few years behind the curve? Maybe so.

I had a conversation with a Rockwell product manager at Automation Fair. He confirmed that the biggest part of his business is replacing legacy controls. So what are they replacing it with? More legacy PLCs, with no real value-add or sea change. Maybe something is wrong here.

Most trade show reviews can only tell us what's now, not what may be there later. That's what press conferences are for, and private showings that are, generally, off the record.

We can only speculate about what might be coming out as products and technology, and that is getting harder due to the merging of industries, technologies, and companies.

Microsoft technologies run rampant in our industry. Windows 2000 has a Net Sender applet built in--for free. This means you can send messages to others on the network, essentially without a product. This can be done under application control.

Internet Explorer is a free visualization tool and is being used extensively. Java and web-based hardware are proliferating like rabbits. Not for our part of the automation world, but it's being used in ever-increasing numbers.

So it seems the real news isn't coming from our trade shows. We have to get closer to the driving forces, which means crossing the river for a view from the commercial side.

So I guess to make my reader happy, if I want to know what's coming, that's where I'll need to look sometimes.

Contact Jeremy through his web site:


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