Yesterday the AMR team met with Rockwell Automation's senior leadership group including CEO Keith Nosbusch to spend an entire day digging into the trends and challenges in today's manufacturing automation market. Nosbusch is a graduate of University of Wisconsin's electrical and computer engineering program, and a 35 year veteran of the automation industry. As the father of Logix, which is Rockwell's integrated control platform for manufacturing automation, Nosbusch deserves credit for a pretty big chunk of our national productivity miracle over the past few decades. Despite these stellar credentials, my impression of Nosbusch was of a guy who is humble, level-headed, and yet surprisingly visionary. My Badger friends may reluctantly admit that these are typical traits of a UW grad.
So what's the deal with Automation 2.0?
That's my shorthand name for a wave of manufacturing investment that I believe is fast approaching on the horizon and will radically improve the capital, labor, and energy efficiency of all kinds of large scale manufacturing. Having worked closely for years with vendors whose products are supposed to improve the global supply chain, I think Rockwell and their kin have something to offer that stands to trump most of what the ERP, SCM, CRM and other alphabet soup tech-vendors have given us. The key is smarter, more flexible, more adaptible production equipment enabled with a stack of IT that will connect work centers within plants to all manner of input streams and output streams.
It sounds familiar enough, and of course, lacks some of the glamour of fancy optimization or snazzy web services, but in practice this technology layer is ready for a breakthrough. The hint I saw yesterday was in an 18 month old alliance with Dassault Systemes to do integrated product and manufacturing process design. This notion, which is certainly understood by rival Siemens who went so far as buy UGS for its PLM and factory simulation capabilities, promises not just better plants, but better supply networks. In isolation, design for manufacture and factory simulation are cool enough. In conjunction with a platform that integrates ever smarter machinery with business flows outside of the plant and outside of the company, the idea can deliver multiplicative impact.
During our meeting the comment was made that manufacturing jobs may be going away, but the ones that remain are becoming very brain intensive. Amen. The whole idea of automation is to eliminate repetitive human labor with capital, and in the process, deliver more precision, repeatability, and control. In an ideal world (post Automation 2.0) there will no longer be any dehumanizing, rote, pure labor jobs in manufacturing. These will all be handled safely and efficiently by machines, leaving people to design new products, find and serve customers, and make business decisions trading off production and sourcing locations in sync with optimal balances of material prices, energy costs, and market proximity.
What astonishes me still is the relative lack of excitement about this whole movement. Admittedly, my colleagues at AMR (Roddy Martin, Simon Jacobson, Bill Polk, and PLM genius Mike Burkett) know alot more about this than I do, but I still wonder; why does it seem so amazing to me, and yet so mundane to others in the world of supply chain technology? I started with a profile of Rockwell CEO Nosbusch to make a point about humility, and while I admire it, I feel compelled to give this guy some kudos for what has been done so far and a push to keep the good work going.
Automation 2.0 can revolutionize manufacturing worldwide, and in the process free our children to pursue careers based on brains, not brawn. Keep it up Keith.