Best Designs in Control Systems

March 9, 2015

With so many choices, how do we know we have the best design?

Recently, I have been taking a much closer—and much different— look at the abundance of controls systems products on the market. I’m not looking for a particular product, nor am I trying to solve a particular problem. Not at all—I’m searching for something else.

What is it about human nature that draws us to particular products? Electricians have a favorite screwdriver, mechanics their favorite wrenches, programmers their “go to” text editors, and teachers rely on a specific text long after its binding has surrendered. Arguably, the list is endless and it seems that whenever a choice exists, most of us seem to have a preference.

Controls engineers, with our personal preferences, are no different. But we must be very careful, since we also are exposed to such an abundance of selection. It’s both good and not so good, that we have so many products from which to choose. Most of us simply lack the time or resources to explore them all; we try to do our best at picking solutions that work reliably and which we can efficiently support and maintain. We also tend to choose solutions that we believe we can confidently deploy with the available resources.  And—as mentioned previously—we sometimes tend to lean towards the products we prefer, whether or not better solutions actually exist, often justifying the “safe” choices as effective risk management.

There are bigger risks—however—in relying too heavily on our preferences. If we’re not careful, as we lean towards our favorite products, we can easily place competitive products at an unfair disadvantage. In doing so, we can unjustly disqualify solutions that might offer better overall experiences. When this happens, we have failed to offer our customers what they deserve—our very best product(s). Should we do that too often, perhaps our customers might change their preferences too, away from us and towards our competition.

So, what can we do to ensure that we have exercised due diligence? How can we maintain those parallel loyalties: the one to our customers, and the other to the organizations for whom we design our products? How can we be confident, given that vast array of available hardware, that we’ve made sound choices in the selection and application of controls systems products?

That’s what I’m really looking for—some way to approach and answer those questions objectively. I want to be confident that I’m not unconsciously engaging in preferential treatment. I’m looking for some set of rules, some guidelines, something I could use during the evaluation phases of projects (before and after delivery), regarding the control systems selection and designs.

I did arrive at a few questions we can, perhaps, ask ourselves in order to maintain a balance between meeting delivery/cost constraints, while helping our organizations advance to the next levels of controls system performance:

  1. In the last few months, what elements of our design have our customer’s had problems with, and were these problems due to implementation issues, or are we missing critical functionality?
  2. Of all of the failures or breakdowns in the field, what percentage were quickly diagnosed and repaired, with a minimum of service effort and minimum of lost production?
  3. Do we have relatively new hardware/components failing?
  4. What do our customers think of our controls systems? What complaints are we hearing? And indeed, are customers still talking to us? (This kind of silence is not golden, it’s deadly!)
  5. How often do I speak with our customers? Am I sure I have a fair cross-section of data?
  6. What do our service personnel seem to understand the least?
  7. What do our customers seem to understand the least?

As we review products that our suppliers offer, we must continually remind ourselves to avoid focusing solely on best-in-class products. Surely, such products are of a high quality in and of themselves, but applying best-in-class products doesn’t necessarily ensure a “best solution”.  Ultimately, a robust, scalable, maintainable solution is what we’re after.

But, how do we know we’ve designed a solution that draws customers to us? Certainly sales numbers tell part of the story, but they don’t tell it all. What we want is for customers to prefer our stuff over the competitions’.  We want our products to be the ones customers seek out.

Lean manufacturing training reminds us that it isn’t drill bits people want, but rather they want the holes  those bits make. The drill bits are nothing more than a means to an end. Controls systems are similar to drill bits—they allow our customers to make the stuff they’re trying to make. When the controls systems get in the way of that effort, we’ve missed the target.

You might notice that of the seven questions above, only one failed to mentioned people.  So—design with the customer in mind. Select products that simply do their job without being noticed, and make the interfaces all but invisible.

It would be disingenuous for any of us to proclaim something such as “Our controls solution was the best!” especially when attempts to define “the best” are futile. Rather, be honest; ask yourself this question: “Are customers coming to us, or are we struggling to find customers?”