My advice to me.

June 20, 2010

I have been an engineer for 28 years. The first 18 were as a plant automation engineer. During this time I never considered myself as a salesman. The last 10 years I have worked as a consultant and system sales professional. Now I tend to think that we are all sales people – internal engineers and managers as much as anyone.

I started my career installing large and expensive distributed control systems, and then expensive process historians, and new and better operator interfaces, upgrading controls and controls rooms and more. We didn’t replace pneumatic controls with digital controls because the old ones weren’t supportable or didn’t work. We installed new digital controls because you could make more and better product lowering the cost of manufacturing. Likewise, we didn’t justify a process historian to replace chart recorders because we could save money on chart paper or ink or because the chart recorder was obsolete. I handled large budgets and I did ROI analysis. I thought I was selling my projects.

Now I think not. I just came along at a good time for increasing capacity.

How often did I find these solutions and initiate these projects rather than being asked about them by others? How hard did I work at finding standards to save money rather than innovations that could lower the cost of manufacturing? I came along at a good time in manufacturing and really had it pretty easy to get capital if you could use it to put more widgets out the door.

I also came along when many of us engineers got buried in programing and configuration of the electronic solutions we employed. We became technicians that could manipulate the systems rather than business people.

When I talk to manufacturing companies as a consultant or as a sales agent – I challenge them to be the lowest cost producer when the plant is pushing capacity and when the plant is cutting back. You want a company name on the door and people working inside and the only way to do this is to be able to keep making a product at a low margin. Effective manufacturing, increasing product mix, lowering changeover time, increasing first pass yield, increasing uptime are all highly important to remain profitable. Facilities are closing and corporations are smart enough to close the highest cost producer.

I believe engineers should be at the forefront of making business decisions in manufacturing.

Advice to myself 25 years ago:
• Look to increase margins on products rather than just saving money.
• Get funding for your projects based on ROI – rather than just abating risk.
• Don’t ask how much a solution costs – ask how you will make money by using the product.
• Don’t assume there is a spending freeze on capital for a project that will make money. Most businesses find money for a project that has a payback in 3 or 4 months.
• Negotiate business solutions. Explore the ability to lease a product or pay based on savings.
• Always sell your project based on local business needs to the person that can say yes.
• Assume that a business unit manager will find money for a good investment – or make them say no to your project. It will let them know you are thinking in terms of business.

What do you think?


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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