The front office revolution

Paul Gay talks with John Pritchard, senior vice president and general manager automation equipment & Factory IT sales, GE Fanuc Automation, Europe.

For GE Fanuc’s John Pritchard, the first six months of 2001 have been a mixture of confidence and surprise.

Factory IT, the market for linking machines with enterprise software, is growing rapidly. ‘We’re no longer talking about boxes, we’re automation solution providers,’ says Pritchard. ‘You don’t have to be in the control business to be in Factory IT. This is the new growth market in our sector and 50% or more of turnover is service,’ he suggests.

Pritchard believes that the threat of recession is not as worrying to GE Fanuc as to pure manufacturing concerns. ‘The slowdown in the economy drives productivity so the factory IT business is booming. Orders are leading sales and I see no recession for the next 18 months,’ he comments. ‘Europe has had a relatively good first half and of course the weak Euro has helped. Some of the best machines in the world are made in Switzerland, Italy and Germany and they are available at the right price.’

The failure of the GE/Honeywell merger did come as a disappointment. ‘GE Fanuc is no 1 in factory automation and with the Honeywell merger, the joint company would have been number one in process automation,’ he claims. ‘Jack’s [Welch] parting gift of Honeywell would have made us number one in process automation. It was aerospace that let us down. The deal failed because of aero engines,’ he adds. ‘We would also have been number one in building automation, which fits well with our low voltage business. So we are disappointed.’

Pritchard wants GE Fanuc to be seen as a factory automation company although products such as Cimplicity can control the whole factory. Cimplicity can handle line control, ERP, QMS as well as the digital cockpit concept, which provides a portal of realtime information from dissimilar systems.

‘We have adopted the concept of producing a suite of software,’ says Pritchard. ‘The resulting toolbox is middleware and can no longer be considered as Scada. It can, however, be termed MES and competes with offerings from the likes of Siemens, Wonderware and Intellution.’

GE Fanuc has put all the elements in one container. The customer only takes the modules required and puts them into one package, which, being hardware independent, will control various boxes. Platforms can range from embedded systems such as CE through PC, PLC to motion systems.

‘The challenge is in the interconnection of dissimilar systems. XML is one tool to get at that,’ explains Pritchard. ‘We can also make use of OPC, HTML and SQL to integrate our systems. Getting it all into one container gives us a lead.’

‘We also have a joint venture with Cisco which has sorted out our networking problems an has led to the digital cockpit concept,’ he adds. The Digital Cockpit is a GE Fanuc technology, which gives each manager the key indicators required to complete their particular job. Managers get management information while production personnel are fed with engineering data. Senior management can have a mixture as the cockpit system, which is effectively an information portal, which can be customised to individual needs.

‘It’s like Noddy Land,’ says Pritchard. ‘Good things are in green and the user can get an instant picture of the condition of process.’

Pritchard has eight variables in his cockpit and these include Euro usage and digital inputs. Being a fan of the Euro and a believer in the importance of electronic trading, these variables provide important information about the condition of his business. Currently 79% of business is quoted in Euro and 36% of all orders this summer were paperless.

On the Euro, Pritchard comments: ‘I have no real axe to grind but adoption will eliminate complexity. After next January we will only trade in Euro, Pounds, Swiss francs and dollars. Denmark and Switzerland will probably transact in Euro even though they are not member states.

‘The result of all this is that 120,000 variables in the billing system will shrink to some 20,000. ‘If 80% of volume is in one currency, business becomes simpler, computers get faster and we take cost out of the system. And anything that makes life easier is a good thing.’ he suggests.

In the USA, the paperless age has progressed faster. These days, GE Fanuc ‘North America charges a Euro10 surcharge on faxed orders. In Europe we are not quite as advanced. When asked about the possibility of paperless trading, the Germans have a special word for it: Yein!’ quips Pritchard.

For the future, Pritchard sees the cost of I/O continuing to fall. ‘We have gone full circle,’ he comments. ‘In 20 years, the economy of scale has forced I/O from two, to four, to eight, to 16 and 32 device per unit. But now the cost has dropped, we are producing two I/O devices if required.’

‘If I had to pick one area for development, it would be wireless ethernet,’ Pritchard says. ‘Currently we need an appropriate application to bear the cost. But like I/O, the price per point will fall.’

‘If the 1990s was back office automation, now we are looking at the front office. This is the next revolution.’