Computer/Embedded Technology

Industrial Ethernet and the marketing communications consultant

14 August 2002 Computer/Embedded Technology

Marketing communications consultant, Perry Sink Marshall, is the author of a new book from ISA (Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society) entitled 'Industrial Ethernet made simple'. George Thomas of industrial network specialist company, Contemporary Controls, tracked him down and asked a few questions.

You have a knack for getting yourself in print. I marvel about the many times you appear in the various magazines. What is your secret?

A lot of vendors seem to think that magazine writers and editors work for them. Actually, it is the opposite. I treat magazine editors just like I treated my OEM customers when I was a sales manager. If they need something, I get it for them. If you want the press to cooperate with you, you have to develop a relationship with them. You have to become a reliable and friendly source of interesting information and angles. And not just about whatever you are trying to sell today. I was once a magazine editor myself during college. But in any case, for me writing has been an interesting way to bring my technical skills and my sales skills together to bridge the gap between vendors and customers. What it really comes down to is this: as a sales person I used to spend most of the day pounding the phone and trying to get appointments. Publicity is a much better, less difficult way to find new customers. That idea has become the cornerstone of my business.

How did you develop the approach you use in your consulting work?

Six years ago I was working in Chicago as a manufacturer's rep, and having a fairly difficult time with it. The problem was, I spent more time trying to get through gatekeepers and set up meetings with customers than I actually spent seeing the customers. It was enormously wasteful. Plus at the same time I was trying to sell new network technologies like DeviceNet and AS-I, which compounded the problem. I learned the hard way how long it takes our industry to adopt new technology. I said to myself, "There has got to be a better way." I looked around and started to realise that there are thousands of companies out there who do not chase customers at all. They may not even have sales people on staff. The customers always come to them. And some of them are innovative companies that sell new technology.

Well, the thing about those kinds of companies is that they have to be very smart about their marketing and advertising, because they do not use sales people. A piece of paper or a website does all the selling. And people like it because there is nobody calling and annoying them. They relax in an airplane and look at a catalogue for an hour, whereas they would be uptight if they had to spend that hour with a sales guy.

So I started studying those ideas and adapting them to industrial automation. 'IA' is a traditional 'sales guy' kind of business. And it will always be that way because there is tons of customisation and application specific knowledge. But I discovered that if you take those nonintrusive marketing concepts from other industries and 'bolt them on' to the front end of a sales channel, suddenly the sales guys have more leads than ever before and their job becomes much easier. Many of the reps and distributors at Synergetic told me they got more sales leads from us than they got from their other principals, even though in many cases we were the smallest company on their line card. And then we were not perceived as peddlers but as credible sources of information. Why? Because we marketed information about solving problems, instead of just information about our products.

You frequently talk about the fieldbus wars. Who are the winners and who are the losers?

In my book, the winners are DeviceNet, Profibus, Modbus, Foundation Fieldbus and Industrial Ethernet. I think Ethernet and a combination of several automation protocols on TCP/IP will overtake all the rest but users will find it is not a panacea. Last year when I was talking to ISA press about writing a book, I suggested DeviceNet. They were not willing to do that, but Ethernet was very high on their priority list - a hot topic. I ended up writing 'Industrial Ethernet: A Pocket Guide'. I would say Ethernet is going to take the lead, but all of those I mentioned are here to stay. The losers? I do not see a big future for SDS or Interbus or Seriplex, or any number of other also-ran networks. The proprietary ones like Modbus Plus and Remote IO have such a large installed base that they will be around for years, but I do not know why anyone would choose them for a Greenfield installation.

I guess you think our dull industry needs some fun added. Do you not feel an oil-tight pushbutton is interesting enough?

Nothing is ever interesting until you get to the part that involves people. I suppose the unfortunate thing about specialised technical disciplines is that people think it is about the product, which therefore means it must be boring. I disagree. Heck, there is a company called New Pig that sells supplies for cleaning up spills. Can you think of anything more mundane than that? Well, they do not seem to think so. They have this wacky catalogue and crazy contests for their customers. Or how about an upholstery company I know of - is that not an exciting category? - that sponsors an 'Ugliest couch contest' every year. They get international press from it. The only reason anyone does business with a boring company is there is not anyone else to do business with. So I told my reps about the Five Fs: 'Food, Fun, Fieldbus, Fame and Fortune'. Sure, it was cheesy, but everyone still liked it. The purpose of a business is not to make oil-tight pushbuttons. The purpose of a business is to get and keep customers. I think that is the fun part, regardless of what the product is. Having said that, I think most oil-tight pushbuttons are boring. But a few of them are really cool.

What is the impact of industrial Ethernet on fieldbuses?

It is making them run for their lunch money. Quite frankly, it makes most of the old guard in the automation business nervous. Everybody is afraid people will wire their plant with cables they bought at Office Max, and the next version of Windows will include a free copy of Microsoft Factory. I do not think the issue is Ethernet per se, rather I think it is the larger expectations that have been created by PCs and the Internet. McDonalds permanently changed the world's definition of 'fast' as it relates to the subject of food. Federal Express did the same for package delivery. Now there are restaurants everywhere that make meals in 90 seconds. And nobody dares say '4-6 weeks delivery' in mail order anymore. The Internet defines connectivity to mean any time, any place, for any person - point and click. You do not have to edit some .INI file or use TELNET. So nobody thinks they should have to do that with automation equipment either. What I see is that the big companies are taking a bath in the recession, but the small innovative companies are still doing quite well. At the National Manufacturing Show in Chicago, I met two people within a 30 minute time span who said that March 2002 was a record month for them.

What upsets customers the most about fieldbuses?

To the extent that manufacturers are still using them to create barriers, people are annoyed. It is only natural to ask, "Now wait a minute, if my kid can play Quake over the Web with some kid in Singapore, then why will your PLC not talk to my encoder?" On the other hand, some companies love fieldbuses. Most people in the semiconductor business are happy with DeviceNet. I think it all comes down to the sophistication of the customer - how capable he is of taking a powerful tool and using its full potential.

What upcoming consumer technology will impact our industry the most in the future?

If you look at all the webcams and digital cameras out there, it is pretty clear that vision systems are going to get a lot cheaper; they already have come down significantly. It is going to be interesting to watch new applications develop that were formerly cost-prohibitive. Another interesting thing is to note how little of the consumer robotic technology, as in the Sony AIBO, has reached the automation world. But it will, and in the future it will be much easier to automate the assembly of complex products. That kind of innovation, by the way, is what automation companies are going to have to do to keep their prices from being driven into the ground by commodity consumer technologies.

Do you think Linux will impact our industry?

Yes, I think it already is - but more in terms of philosophy and expectation than actual market share. If you look at Europe, there is definitely more comfort with all things open, including Linux in automation. The European culture is inherently more geared towards open solutions, as we have already seen with the Euro currency and the faster adoption of industrial networks. The main problem with Linux is that it is driven by idealism, and the automation definitely is not idealistic. It is as pragmatic as can be. So Linux will succeed when people sell its practicality rather than its ideals.

How are the big companies coping with open standards?

They are doing everything they can to impede the process. In InTech I said that Allen-Bradley might consider supporting ModBus/TCP protocol after their market share falls below 40%. And I have always said that the Foundation Fieldbus committee was a great way to delay the progress of open standards for 12 years while appearing to embrace them. But even for FF, it was inevitable that a standard would eventually emerge and now it is popular. I see a great opportunity for small companies who want to create innovative products, but I do not expect that most of the big companies will seize the opportunities. Their management will blame their problems on the recession while they continue to perpetuate their happy slogans and outdated business models.

Is this a good time to be in business?

My observation is, it is good if you are a small innovative company. It has been good for me. It is a lousy time if you work for a company that is so big that the sales department is on the first floor and marketing is on the fourth floor. With the economy being what it has been, I think it is a great time to think about starting something new.

Perry Marshall's website is: Contemporary Controls is at For further information about industrial networking contact Contemporary Controls' local representative, Electronic Products Design, 012 665 9700.


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