Under Control


Three notable events fall in February: President's Day, Shirley's birthday and Valentines Day. They arrive in sequence on the 12th,13th and 14th of this, the shortest month of the year---an action-packed month. Politicians, wives and lovers make for strange partnerships, not to mention bedfellows. Our column this month deals with that most basic of teenage passions: love.

Most of us have a technical background of some sort. We think we are logical and that emotions are absent from our professional life. Alas, not true. All I need to do to evoke an emotional response from many "professionals" is to say that a PC is better than a Mac. Or the reverse. It matters not. Of I can say that software is never complete; ladder logic is better that a flow chart; Intel beats Motorola. Or I can mention any LAN standard. Any or all will be likely to trigger some quirky, idiosyncratic response, borne of equal parts idealism and instinct.

The secret of good design is good enough. The enemy of good is perfect. The secret of poker is knowing when to fold, not when to bet. A truly successful event is a rare bird. You can't rely simply on the averages when success has such spurious origins. With the Breakfast Club, a group of financial angels I'm part of, we look at about 100 business plans a year. We invest in about four. About once every five years we hit a winner. Acceptance of that failure rate is the only sure road to success. On the other hand, we have to know when to stop carrying the investment.

Modicon started as project #084 in our venture technology company, Bedford Associates. To this day, every programmable controller Modicon makes has the nom de guerre x84 punched somewhere on it. Understand that the significance of the number is that we succeeded with the 84th try. Since then, we've worked on about 400 projects, again, with a winner once every five years. NOt a very good batting average. In almost every instance, we fall in love early on and end up hanging on too long. Eventually, however, we quit putting our efforts into a loser and move on to bigger and better things.

What does all this mead in terms of today's automation and information technology systems? Look, for example, at how the increasing imperative for "build-to-order" rather than "build-to-stock" impacts the thinking of the machine tool builder. The idea that a machine tool (transfer line) can be built around a product belongs to yesteryear. Machining centers will replace transfer lines in the automotive industry. Line manufacturers need to take this into account, making the transfer line of the future act more as a CNC machining center than a build-to-stock production tool.

But the machine-tool manufacturers are in love. They want to believe that the old ways are good enough. They think they're on the right track: they just need to work harder. So they end up making good time, but in the wrong direction. As one of our union leaders stated, "If you always doe what you always did, you will always get what you always got."

One of my favorite stories is the tale of Underwood, a manufacturer of typewriters that sold for about $100. Along came the word processor. Sold for thousands. Underwood said "Not to worry." Underwood is no longer in business. Mr. Underwood missed the boat because he was in love.

The same stories can be told regarding the knight in armor; the railroads; the cigarette manufacturers that just want faster machines, incapable of diversity; and the makers of mechanical printers who have lost the market share to laser-printer makers. In fact, the fixed-font, high-speed printer has been bested by the slower, "print-to-order" laser printer. We want a manufacturing facility that has laser-printer attributes.

What can we do? Stay a true professional. If what you need can be bought from a specialist, don't do it yourself. Don't micro-manage. Stay truly logical and ask, "Is this approach valid for today's problems?" The 80/20 rule always applies: 80 percent of the solution can be obtained with 20 percent of the effort. See where you stand and decide whether it's time to fold. The "not invented here" mentality is the biggest enemy of American industry. Remember, as of today, classical automation is obsolete.

Some things deserve love forever. My bride, Shirley, of 35+ years is my love. Couldn't fold if I tried. She raised our three bio kids and about 25 others. She gets gold medals in the giant slalom. She is a good friend, lets me work, and I love her. Happy Valentines Day.

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine February 1994 Page 40

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