Machine Design

What online music taught me about industrial automation

I'm in the market for a new MP3 player, which got me thinking about the trouble I had two years ago during the purchase of the last one.

Nick Riley
Design Engineer
Opto 22
Temecula, Calif.

Interestingly, that exercise illustrates what is wrong with today's industrial automation industry, and a way to fix it.

Looking back, what I thought would be a simple, 2-hour process turned into days of frustration weeding through an overwhelming number of vendors, music providers, and plans. I'd finally settled on a player only to discover that it wouldn't work with my choice of music service. I just wanted to listen to my music! The endeavor had become so complicated that I was ready to chuck it all and dig out my old Walkman.

Then I discovered a company with an archetypal fruit as its logo. This company, I learned, not only offered a variety of MP3 players, but an affordable music service and easy-to-use software that let you load and configure the player in no time. The software had lots of cool features and utilities to help manage and maintain your music collection and do such nifty things as burn your MP3s onto CDs. There was also a host of optional add-on components, all of which seamlessly integrated in a single platform.

This underlying philosophy — one predicated on the principles of consolidation and simplicity — is what's sorely needed in today's automation and control industry. Design engineers face challenges similar to my earlier MP3-player ordeal: Too many choices from too many vendors offered in too many complex packages and configurations have made automation products difficult to understand and use.

As design engineers, our job is to solve problems related to specifying or building a machine. But how can we do this when spec'ing out a system, installing and configuring it to work independently (much less with other components) is becoming an increasingly unwieldy and frustrating job?

One answer: Vendors of industrial-automation equipment need to simplify the tasks of acquiring, applying, and maintaining their products, rather than bombard engineers with a slew of new offerings from ever-expanding "solutions" portfolios. These days, engineers don't have the time or inclination to try to understand overwhelming amounts of information about complex automation systems.

Nothing gratifies me more in my job than solving a problem by applying ingenuity to come up with an idea that turns everything on its ear. But to do this, we need simpler, integrated "puzzle-piece" automation products that let us act on our ideas and solve problems in the most expedient ways.

Opto 22 ( is a maker of industrial automation equipment.

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