It is Wednesday, January 12, 2011 and the snow is starting to melt across the southeast. More people are out driving on roads that are still patchy with ice. This is a good jumping off place for an analogy…

My car has an ergonomic dashboard with excellent feedback on everything needed to operate the vehicle: speed, rpm, tire pressure, mpg, compass, add-on GPS, alarms, and much more.  My car is also equipped with front-wheel drive, anti-lock computer controlled braking system, automatic transmission, and computerized stability control steering. However, the car will still slide into a ditch if I drive it over ice improperly and it will certainly go into a ditch if I drive it there. In short – my car has some excellent operator feedback and closed loop control enhancements that make driving easier and safer – but the driver is still in control of the vehicle. This level of feedback and closed loop control is a good analogy for state-of- the-art manufacturing and process operations management today.

What if we take away the dashboard and alarms in your car?  Instead we will get each driver to log where they are driving, miles driven and time from place to place. We will log the gas and oil checks and additions, the tire pressure, and keep a record on breakdowns. From this data we will create Excel® graphs and charts of various Key Performance Indicators such as gas mileage, oil usage, miles between breakdowns, and maybe performance on different trips and differences between drivers. We will then post the data KPIs and with costs in the garage once a week. You can organize a family meeting to discuss the data and all drivers will understand how to help maximize use of the vehicle. You can use the data to talk to your kids individually about driving too fast based on the mileage and time it took for them to go to the movies. You and your wife will be thrilled to see how management of the vehicle will help save money when you really just want to get groceries to cook a good meal.

Industry in many ways has dealt with issues above by limiting control by operators because it was the easiest thing to do – and in many ways the best. Pumping the brakes will result in the fastest and safest way to stop the vehicle – so antilock braking is a good thing to automate – helping the driver. However, today giving the driver more information for them to make decisions about the conditions they are facing the direction they want to travel is the best way to help the driver. Likewise this is where operations in manufacturing is best today.

Automation of operation today is about automation and visualization of intelligence for better decision making. This is not the realm of closed loop controls, it is not taking away decision making – but elevating the ability of the whole team to make better, faster decisions based on true intelligence.

The company that makes the closed-loop cruise control algorithm for Ford is not the company that provides fleet management for UPS. The day is fast approaching that everything from your vehicle to your vacuum cleaner will provide feedback and intelligence for better decision making. This is the realm operations management. It can be entered today by manufacturing and process companies that have the most sophisticated machines and monolithic automation systems – and those that have work cells of manual processes, warping frames, or a distillation column from the 1950s. Jack Benny’s Maxwell (see picture) was antiquated in the 1940s. You wouldn’t need to add the sophisticated closed-loop controls of todays cars to improve your ability to drive the old Maxwell to a new destination. Maybe a GPS is the right tool to start using the Maxwell more effectively.

Kevin Totherow

Kevin Totherow is a Business Development Manager of MES for Schneider Electric and a consultant for helping manufacturing clients manage their operations better. Kevin has been a controls engineer, consultant and president of Sylution Incorporated. He can be reached at (864) 252-6819 or by email at

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