Nix on clicks, bet on chips.
Allen Bradley has been known for years as the people who make quality relays and controls--things that go clap-clap when you push a button to make something happen. Now they want to change that image to a more glamorous one of leading-edge electronics--from noisy, clattering switching boxes to silent superefficient solid-state controls linked by elaborately intelligent communication networks.
From relays to CIM in one giant leap! Wow! That kind of an image change-over is so profound, they are even considering national television to help us all get the message. And that message is simply that their typical buyer has changed from a designer picking out limit switches to an executive choosing among a wide variety of complex plant-automation/ information systems.
The key man behind this change is Allen-Bradley's new president, Tracy O'Rourke. He joined A-B in 1978 as vice president of corporate development when the company was drawing up their blueprints for the 80s. They had traditionally grown their own leaders, but they knew for this big makeover, they needed an outsider with some really fresh ideas. "The single set of experiences that helped qualify me for the job,' he explains, "is the ten-year span I spent as an entrepreneur, having to live out of our checkbook and make things succeed or fail. We had to learn how to be successful in essentially all the business disciplines or we didn't eat.'
Some of the key ingredients in the A-B plan were:
A faster pace of product change. They needed more emphasis on computer-on-a-chip electronics to maintain their leadership in factory automation, and instead of building "Cadillacs' with top-dollar price tags, they had to offer a broader price mix because their customers were now much more price conscious.
A system emphasis. "Increasingly, our sales force has had to quit trying to sell individual pieces of hardward and start selling concepts of factory automation,' explains O'Rourke.
New attitudes. Employee attitudes from the factory floor to the executive suite have had to change. People who for years lived with the comfortable knowledge that the Allen-Bradley name guaranteed acceptance in the market-place have had to "adopt a new sense of urgency.'
An example of that new thinking was their Industrial Controls Div in Milwaukee. The electromechanical mainstay of the company, they had come to feel like a neglected cash cow. To disabuse them of that notion, relates O'Rourke, "I finally sat down with some of the people there and said, "I don't understand you people. You aren't doing anything to keep yourselves alive. Sustaining your technological lifeblood is your responsibility and I think you can do it.' Their first reaction was fear, then excitement. I think they have responded very aggressively in the last several years.'
The sales force was the toughest re-education task. "Getting them to change in the face of success is much harder,' O'Rourke admits. To help them make the transition from selling pieces of hardware to selling "concepts' took many meetings and presentations. "Many of the ideas involved were fairly esoteric, requiring a much higher level of conceptualization than before. But there was no way they could be expected to sell customers on the idea of using Allen-Bradley products to automate their operations if they themselves did not understand how the products fit into an overall automation scheme.
"We started softly, and as we fleshed out our product line, we escalated our demands on our sales people that they buy our approach.' A strong company-wide adult-education program helped all employees better understand advances in computer technology and their implications for the company.
"All of our people have to be in the computer world,' says O'Rourke. "They can't be intellectually ignorant of current technology.' Of 40 or 50 district sales managers, he feels, only four or five have been unable to make that adjustment. "They've adapted well. When you talk to them now, they use the new words and feel comfortable with these concepts.'
O'Rourke is quite a personable, down-to-earth guy, the kind of leader it's easy to rally behind. In a briefing for the trade press, he let us in on some of his thoughts about the competitive challenge A-B faces today. "We have to examine our past; to look at why Allen-Bradley has been a very successful company. It boils down to three key things: A quality product (a point acknowledged by even our competitors in some surveys we've taken), good service, and good people. Unlike others, we do not put the cost of service into the cost of the product. If your application requires special service, you pay for it and you get what you pay for.'
A major move is the globalization of A-B--the challenging of foreign competitors on their own turf--which O'Rourke freely admits was as much a defensive as an offensive move. They are presently doing well even in Japan, despite some initial trepidation on the part of some on the board of directors. "Less than 10 percent of US industry is moving into DNC today, yet we must have much more than that to survive. The key is eliminating direct labor. None of the advanced countries, Japan included, can compete with countries that have 30-cents-an-hour labor rates!'
He feels that the Japanese are definitely ahead of us in FMS and robotics, but not in CIM. "The problem for the Japanese with CIM is that they have too many people and they move too slowly. Our lead in systems technology is something we must work hard to exploit.'
The kanban ideas of the Japanese are not transferable here, he feels. "Kanban cards won't work here, and those who are trying to make them work are wasting their time. They would be better off either trashing them or using them to light cigars.'
But he has the utmost respect for the stimulating effect created by his Japanese competitors. "If the Japanese hadn't occurred naturally, we would have invented them. We need them just as they need us.'
He sees great opportunities in controls today. "Fifteen years ago, DNC was not cost effective. Today, it's not just cost effective, it's cost beneficial and we are all compelled to apply it as rapidly as we can. We're certainly doing it in our plants.' He sees adaptive control as the next big area of application, despite its meager use thus far.
To close the automation loop, he feels sensor technology is the area that needs the most work, and they are devoting a lot of their R&D money to overcome this barrier. Yet, he personally likes to still see handles on control valves--the idea that human intervention is still an option.
Although the future of Allen-Bradley --and of all the rest of us--will hinge on the quality of our people, O'Rourke is quick to admit that he does not have an infinite supply walking his halls. Recently, Pratt & Whitney needed to redesign and upgrade a plant with 1200 machine tools and asked to borrow about 200 of his top tech people to do it. "We didn't have 200 people we could spare,' he relates, "so I finally agreed to give them two people free, just to train their people for the task.'
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|Publication:||Tooling & Production|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1984|
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