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About 6 months ago I blogged about ControlsOverload, a knowledge-sharing Q&A site for the Industrial Automation community: Make More Money with ControlsOverload.

I was pleased to read Bill Lydon’s article in InTech called Putting knowledge to work. Bill shares a story similar to what many of us have experienced:

Early in my career, I ran up against an automation systems software problem I could not figure out. Being the “new guy” in an open office with five other engineers who had experience with these systems, I decided to get their input and explained the problem as best I could. They had suggestions, but no one offered a solution. After working on the problem for a few days, I discovered some software code that only executed under certain system circumstances, which was creating the problem. I changed the code to get the system in the field working properly and wrote an engineering change request.

I proudly shared the solution with the group. One of the most knowledgeable and experienced engineers exclaimed, “I solved that problem months ago!” Pulling out a folder from his desk file drawer, he announced his notes on the solution were, “right here.” I asked why he did not tell me this a few days before, and he responded, “You didn’t ask the right question about this specific code.” I learned this was normal operating procedures with him because he believed withholding knowledge created job security.

That’s exactly the reason why ControlsOverload was created. I’ve seen the impact of withholding knowledge, and it’s painful. Engineers are entering the industrial automation career path all the time and all of them have to re-learn the same lessons over and over because older generations aren’t taking the time to share their knowledge and mentor. It’s the opposite of the behavior that built our civilization. We need to pass these expensive lessons on to the next generation so they can spend more time building better things than we ever could.

One-on-one interaction and teaching is good, but social networking adds an economy of scale that allows knowledge sharing to explode. But somebody has to take the time to seed the field before we get our first harvest.

Mar/10

20

Rockwell Automation Responds

After my recent rant about Rockwell Automation and their frustrating online support, I received an email from Joe Harkulich, Global Quality Leader at Rockwell Automation. The first thing he did was, helpfully, get me straightened out with my TechConnect ID. Apparently the one we were given wasn’t our real TechConnect ID, and it happened to be the ID of another company in Mexico, which caused some confusion on my end. Once that got straightened out, I could access the article I was looking for (a bit late, but better than never).

Joe then invited me to join a conference call with Esther Beris (Rockwell Knowledgebase), Jon Furniss (TechConnect), and Rob Snyder (Senior Manager for Rockwell’s remote support). I’m thankful for them taking the time to do this, as I’m really only a moderate user of Rockwell Automation products. (I really don’t think they’re very concerned about my legions of blog readers and twitter followers). I’ll relate a few of the details of the call here, and I really want to express my gratitude to everyone involved for their time.

The first item on the agenda was Joe addressing some misinformation in my previous blog post. I had made a comment about Beckhoff’s 350MB knowledge-base available for download, and I had suggested that Rockwell should do something similar. It turns out that Rockwell does offer TechConnect subscribers the ability to receive 3 DVD’s full of all their product manuals and their entire knowledge base. Joe offered to send me a copy, and I accepted. I received them yesterday and installed them on the laptop at work. This will be nice pending an on-site trip that’s scheduled next month. I’m a bit concerned that the discs are dated May of 2008. I was expecting them to be about 6 months old. We did discuss the idea of making them automatically download updates of the knowledge base, etc., so your offline copy is always up to date, but they pointed out that this would be a huge amount of information so it probably couldn’t happen, but they would take the idea into consideration. Personally I think a solution like that would have a lot of value.

We then turned our discussion towards some of the issues I had raised with Rockwell’s online support in my previous post. I certainly made it clear that I have always been impressed with Rockwell’s paid telephone support, and I really have nothing to complain about there; they are simply awesome! When it comes to the online support, we talked about these issues:

  • Single sign-on
  • Expiry of your account if you don’t log on for 6 months
  • Access to product manuals, EDS files and support directly from the product page
  • Paid vs. unpaid content

Single Sign-On

It makes no sense to me why you have to sign on separately at www.rockwellautomation.com and at their knowledgebase. Apparently it doesn’t make a lot of sense to the folks at Rockwell either, and they’re working on it. However, there’s no time-line for the resolution of it (or at least they couldn’t give me one). I think it’s one of those cases where the politics of a big organization are getting in the way of doing something really simple, and I can appreciate that. I did get the impression that the people involved do care, and it will get done, eventually.

Expiry of your account if you don’t log on for 6 months

In past years I would frequently do a lot of automation work, and then switch to PC programming for a project or two, and then switch back to automation work as I’ve recently done. I always found it a bit frustrating the first time I tried to download some EDS file and Rockwell had canceled my account because it had been longer than 6 months since I’d signed in. Apparently I’m not the only customer to complain about this, and Rockwell is in the process of changing this. Bravo!

Access to product manuals, EDS files and support directly from the product page

Let’s say I go to the ControlLogix Product Page. On a normal website when I look at a product I see exactly what that one component looks like, a link directly to the datasheet or user manual, a tab with all the specs on it, and all the information I need to buy that product. But the ControlLogix page is a brand page, not a product page. It’s almost completely useless to me as an Engineer. There is a Literature link, and that has a selection guide and something else, but then it tells me I have to go to the literature library to find all the good documentation.

When I explained this on the conference call I got some good laughs, because again, I’m not the first person to complain about this. Apparently this is being resolved, and they do have a time-line: September 2010. That’s great news and I’m really happy to hear it.

Paid vs. Unpaid Content

I’m afraid the issue of paid vs. unpaid content is still a sticking point for me. They explained to me that they chose a paid model for their support because they can provide better support. There’s no question in my mind that the quality of Rockwell’s telephone support comes through time and again, but I have to disagree with the pay-wall model they’re using for online support. I really think what’s happened is that the technical support group within Rockwell is literally scared of what could happen if they didn’t maintain a strangle-hold over the information that guys like me need to do their job.

I’ve talked before about vendor lock-in in the industrial automation industry, so I’m not going to go into that again. But this is a case where a company is selling me upwards of $10,000 of automation equipment per project and once they’ve done that, they want to charge me extra for access to the information I need to make it work the way it was supposed to work in the first place. I understand the paid telephone support model because there’s a one-to-one relationship between the amount of time I spend on the phone and the amount of time they have to pay someone to talk on the phone. But while they’re doing that, they’re already creating a knowledge-base of information. As smarter people than I have pointed out repeatedly, the marginal cost of distributing that electronic information to one more person is as close to zero as humanity has ever seen. No, you don’t have to because copyright is always on your side, but if you don’t, you open yourself up to being undercut by the following business model:

  • Start an online knowledge base where the customers can build it
  • Offer subtle rewards to the people who contribute (peer recognition within the knowledge community)
  • Let Google index the site and drive traffic to it

…which is exactly what ControlsOverload is. Remember in my last post where I said that I took 3 minutes of my own time and posted the question and answer related to my problem at ControlsOverload? Check out what happens when you search for compactlogix type 01 code 01 fault or even compactlogix powerup fault. The first item in the search results is my question and answer. You can even go to that page and add more information, or correct inconsistencies and you don’t even need to sign-up!

Rockwell has one group that makes products and another group that charges people for support on those products. In order to protect the revenue model of the second, they put barriers in place to maintain a monopoly on information, even though every single industry that has relied on maintaining a monopoly on access to information is dying a slow miserable death. Meanwhile I wasted another hour of my time trying to get a product I’d already purchased to work, and they had the information to cut that time down to 2 minutes, but they put all these barriers in my way even though I’d already paid for support!

The price to hire a PLC programmer is anywhere from about $50 to $100 an hour in my experience. Let’s say $75. Every time Rockwell’s support barriers waste an hour of my time, the total cost of ownership of their equipment goes up by, on average, $75. On top of that, it frustrates me enough to blog about it, and there’s an opportunity cost as well. I could have been using that hour to improve the efficiency of the machine in some other way rather than fighting with Rockwell’s internet site.

Here’s my suggestion to Rockwell to fix the situation:

  • Create and harness a money-free and barrier-free user generated content site, just like ControlsOverload, where customers can help other customers
  • Keep the excellent telephone support, but have the support people contribute to and maintain the free site rather than the paid site
  • Move all the paid support information to the free site (this doesn’t include premium content, as described below)
  • Use the free site to advertise premium online content that users like me are willing to pay for

What do I mean by paid premium content? Tutorials. Training videos. Example applications. Code review services (a support person can review your automation program and offer advice). E-books. Insider news & tips. Access to beta versions of upcoming software releases. In short, something I’m willing to pay for above and beyond what I believe I’ve already paid for.

Good luck Rockwell – the next few years are going to be interesting.

· · ·

I recently had a problem with an Allen-Bradley CompactLogix processor. The power went out, came back on, and the processor had faulted with a major fault, type 01, code 01. The fault message said “Power lost and restored in RUN mode”. There must be a way to disable this fault, and just have it go back into run mode so the operator can recover.

I Googled for the fault message and I got a link to a helpful forum thread. In that forum thread there was a link to a Rockwell Automation Knowledgebase Article that seemed to have the information I was looking for. I clicked the link and it told me I needed to login. That’s annoying enough, but fine. I tried my normal username and password for such sites, and that didn’t work. I went into my encrypted file and pulled out the username and password I’d saved for Rockwell Automation. That didn’t work.

Ok, fine. It had an option to email me my user name. I waited a few minutes for the email – yes the username I was using was OK. I clicked on the option to reset my password. Got the email, reset the password to the one I had saved anyway. Success! I was logged in, but it had forgotten what article I was trying to get to, so I went back to the original forum post and clicked the link again. “This article has been locked, or …” blah blah blah about a TechConnect ID. Ok, so I go to my profile page and click on the tab for TechConnect support IDs. None registered. Hmm, no obvious way to register one. I go to the other profile page… TechConnect ID… excellent! I enter that, click save, and now it needs my company name, address, etc. Ok, I enter that… but now I can’t click save. I have to go backwards, re-enter the TechConnect ID, and my company name and address, and then it saved. Ok, great!

I go back to the forum and click the link again. “This article has been locked, or …” What?!? I check my list of TechConnect IDs again, and there’s nothing there. This is really annoying me at this point. Oddly, under my name it now has the name of some Mexican company, and some place in Mexico. I check my profile page again and it all looks right, and I double-check the TechConnect ID. It’s right (and I know it’s right because I’ve used it to call Rockwell tech support recently).

I go back to Google and search again for the fault code, and I see a link to the Rockwell knowledge-base article. I click on that… same message! What’s going on here? How can Google even index a page that’s behind a sign-up wall and doesn’t even show you the page unless you have a valid TechConnect ID?

Going back to the original forum post, I did find some useful information in there, but obviously the knowledge-base article would have helped me the most. How far behind is Rockwell Automation’s online support? They’re still in the 90’s. I realize there are still a lot of people in this industry who are happier to pickup a phone and call their phone support in a situation like this, but as time goes on and the Millennial Generation continues entering the workforce, self-help focused people like myself are going to be more and more commonplace. We won’t settle for getting our questions answered in hours or even 30 minutes anymore; we want to solve our stupid problems like this in minutes or even seconds, and the technology is there to let us do it. Stop putting unnecessary barriers in our way! Rockwell Automation online support: FAIL!

By the way, I just spent 3 extra minutes and entered my technical question and answer over on ControlsOverload, a website for technical questions and answers about industrial automation. A website where you don’t have to sign in, and nothing is ever blocked behind any kind of wall. If Google can see it, so can you. This is the future of finding information on the internet. Rockwell Automation: Make it easy for me to use your hardware, and maybe I’ll buy more! You know what… here’s Beckhoff’s whole 350MB knowledge-base available for download so you can take it with you onsite when you don’t have an internet connection. Brilliant isn’t it? It’s called openness and it’s the new name of the game. Wake up!

Update (9 MAR 2010): The Global Quality Leader from Rockwell has contacted me and it looks like we’re going to have a constructive discussion about some of these issues (and he also gave me a different TechConnect ID to try). +1 to Rockwell for having their ears on!

Update (20 MAR 2010): I posted a write-up on Rockwell’s response here.

· · ·

Thinking back to my childhood, I find it odd why I remember some memories so vividly while most are lost to time. I have this one absolutely clear memory. I was walking home with my mother (most likely carrying a rented copy of Star Wars or Empire Strikes Back from the local video store, which was a novelty at the time). I must have been going on about something I read about robots… I think I got a book about robots around that age and I saw pictures of some of the first industrial robots of the time. Anyway, I can clearly remember my mother telling me that she was afraid everyone was going to lose their job to a robot soon.

I think the reason this memory stuck with me was how contrary it was to the culture of kids at the time. We idolized robots. The coolest things in our lives were droids, AT-ATs and Transformers (my, how things have changed, eh?). But this wasn’t over-the-top paranoia, it was the generally accepted truth at that time. For the most part, those anxieties have vanished along with fears of nuclear war, only to be replaced by new anxieties of terrorism.

The truth is that we’ve been replacing people with robots for the last quarter of a century, and the unemployment rate peaked in the early 80’s and has been going down, not up! How is it possible that unemployment has fallen while automation is rising?

A History Lesson

In 1865, William Stanley Jevons published a book called The Coal Question. “In it, Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design … Jevons argued that any further increases in efficiency in the use of coal would tend to increase the use of coal. Hence, it would tend to increase, rather than reduce, the rate at which England’s deposits of coal were being depleted.”

This effect became known as the Jevons Paradox:

In economics, the Jevons paradox … is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. It is historically called the Jevons Paradox as it ran counter to popular intuition. However, the situation is well understood in modern economics. In addition to reducing the amount needed for a given use, improved efficiency lowers the relative cost of using a resource – which increases demand and speeds economic growth, further increasing demand.

Automation Increases the Efficiency of Human Resources

Workers are a resource too. Automation is just a technological means to improve the efficiency of people, allowing one person to do the work of many. Since there is no cap on the demand for work, automation increases the demand for workers, since each worker becomes more valuable. Hence, unemployment goes down and wages go up.

ControlsOverload Improves Your Efficiency

When I first got into controls, you learned everything by reading a paper manual (if you could find one) or by trial and error, or if you were lucky, from someone else in your company who had used this technology before. We wasted hours trying to figure stuff out, but we accepted this because it was normal. But it also made us inefficient.

Google came along but largely passed us by. Vendors keep their knowledge bases behind locked doors on the internet, and when working on the plant floor, we rarely had internet access anyway, but that’s changing. Many of us now have smartphones so we can access the internet from anywhere. Sometimes we even have WiFi.

Enter ControlsOverload, Web 2.0 meets Controls Engineering. You don’t need to pay anyone to join. You don’t even need to register to ask or answer a question. It asks that you leave your name, email address, and website, but you can make these up if you want to remain anonymous.

When you start typing your question into ControlsOverload, it automatically searches the existing questions to see if it’s already been asked. As the amount of content on the site grows, the chance that you’ll get your answer immediately grows as well. If the question hasn’t been asked before, posting your question is a single click away. When you get answers, registered users can vote them up or down. The best answers rise to the top, so you don’t have to search through 7 pages of forum posts to find the most relevant or correct answer.

Questions are also “tagged” by technology. Perhaps you’re a vendor and you want to see all the questions related to your products. Here’s the page for all Allen-Bradley technologies for instance. If you want, you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the same page.

Will it work? The technology is already a huge success story for traditional PC programming, along with other topics like parenting and personal finance. It works. People participate because it’s really useful.

The point of ControlsOverload is to make us more efficient, as an industry. We waste less time figuring out how to do the simple stuff, like how to copy symbols out of a PLC into Excel and vice-versa.

Doesn’t this mean we’re giving away our valuable knowledge for free? Are we essentially automating ourselves out of a job?

There’s no doubt our jobs will change. We will spend less time doing trial and error and more time solving customers’ problems. The customer doesn’t care about editing PLC programs; they care about making their facility more efficient. If we can solve that problem faster and easier, then we’re more efficient. If we’re more efficient, the demand for our services goes up.

Whether you participate or not, ControlsOverload is going to increase the demand for controls engineers, and that’s going to increase the wages of controls engineers. ControlsOverload will make you more money.

On the other hand, if your business strategy is to be the only one on the block who remembers the arcane technical details of a Fanuc RJ3iB controller, I’m sorry to tell you that the viability of that business model is quickly being exhausted.

Join us on ControlsOverload:

  • Pool your knowledge.
  • Make connections.
  • Be more productive.

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