Machine control monopoly hurts U.S. OEMs

My company entered the marketplace in 1997, when an abundance of small, hi-tech suppliers dominated the motion control landscape. We sold our specialized motion products while PLC vendors with the largest installed base maintained other machine control functions. In the early 2000s, when the big PLC vendors increased proficiency in motion, the market began to decline as motion became integrated into the PLC. Two things began to happen about this same time. Controls complexity increased dramatically. Customers required more functions than ever before — and for this reason, the OEM's cost for machine automation increased. Second, the market became increasingly globalized.

Economics is now rearing its head and threatening U.S. competitiveness. The U.S. OEM has been “convinced” that they have no option but to purchase an all-in-one control system from the biggest suppliers. However, foreign competitors are not falling prey to that “fact,” which in reality is a perception created by large PLC vendors. If you take a machine that has a control cost of 50%, and reduce that cost by two-fold, OEMs can add a substantial increase to their bottom lines and realize a significant performance increase.

If you try to find a new machine control company investing in the U.S., it's impossible. Everyone has conceded that ground to the large PLC vendors, though the Europeans have not. Several European companies offer performance enhancements and large cost savings. Until U.S. OEMs realize that their European competitors are winning with affordable technology (and the Asian market is winning with inexpensive labor), their ability to remain competitive is in jeopardy. Machine control is one area U.S. OEMs can look at to regain their competitive edge.

We sold these products for years based on technological superiority — as I like to say, fighting the battle with oscilloscopes and calculators. Those days are gone. The PLC platform works well enough; the battle must be waged in the boardroom. OEMs that engage in this discussion will realize that their controls decision must be based around finances and economics as well as technology, although they're not always equipped to deal with this issue when up against a large end user customer. It's tough to get engineers to think in these terms.
Charles Williams, Integrated Motion
Greensboro, N.C.

Automobile efficiency means tradeoffs

Efficiency is good. We would all cheer better fuel economy if all else remains the same, or at least acceptable. I'm a mechanical engineer and believe I know a bit more than typical Washington bureaucrats about climate, automobiles, and energy. One unit of fuel, regardless of its form, contains a set amount of energy, which can accelerate an object a set distance related to its overall efficiency. For example, a gallon of gas can run your car, accelerating against wind and rolling friction for 22 miles. In order to gain even half the average mpg increase expected, many aspects of the typical automobile and related energy sources must change.

A few ideas: Increase engine efficiency (decrease performance); increase fuel energy (more BTU per unit, usually at a higher price); decrease wind resistance (smaller, thinner, flatter, slower); decrease electrical consumption (no climate control, radio, or electric assists); and decrease rolling friction (decrease weight). Decreasing weight, size, and resistance will increase mpg most, but will also decrease crash survivability. The relationship of decreasing mass to mpg is inversely linear, while the relationship of decreasing mass to safety is inversely exponential. So which tradeoffs are acceptable? Never mind: This is a mandate. People will have no choice and there will be penalties for noncompliance.

So, what have you got in 2016? A light, small, underpowered vehicle that doesn't get near the mpg promised. No more safe and roomy SUVs that women love so much, no more stylish muscle cars that men love, no more luxury comfort and styling we all love, and considerably less fuel to go around, except for those in government who take priority. Curtailed production is already underway; exploration and drilling in and by the U.S. was halted the first week the new President took office.

This is not about fuel or ecology; it's about political power. Part of the American dream is the freedom to choose and own whatever car you want, one that is safe for your family at whatever luxury level you can afford. Say goodbye to that part of our culture; say hello to the new Commune Car.
Reg Ackerman
Temple, Tex.