In a World Without Fences, Who Needs Gates?NOTE: I wrote this for the July 14, 2011 IMTS Insider
No, I am talking about my all-time-favorite Java One T-shirt. I am talking about sales strategies. "Give away the razor and sell em' the blades." We have all heard and seen this type of sales strategy. The standard model is to come up with a proprietary product, separate the consumables and make your money selling the consumables. Specifically, sell the main product at a greatly reduced price and then lock them in forever on your proprietary consumables.
We see this type of sales model in all types of businesses. It is not uncommon to see this scenario in the computer industry and manufacturing. When this is done, it is not quite as obvious as the razor/blade scenario and it is certainly much more expensive. How software vendors do this is very slick because of the sales story that gets wrapped around it. If you do not take the time to think through the life cycle of your software purchase, you can easily fall into this trap. Here's how to avoid it.
I have had this discussion more than a few times lately and the conversation usually starts off with questions on monitoring their shop or plant floor. "Dave, why should I care how I get my data? All I care about is the information I see on my monitor that tells me how my machine tools are running." My response is, "You're right; on one hand, you shouldn't care, unless you think your shop will change or you plan on using the data coming off those machine tools in something besides monitoring."
The software sales rep typically responds with, "Don't worry about it, it's just a black box," when the shop/plant owner asks how the software will connect to the manufacturing equipment. The conversation might end at that point and the customer goes ahead and buys the software.
At this point, the software sales rep knows they have locked the customer in when changes at the shop or plant occur. As we all know, changes always happen in business. The scenario unfolds as follows. The customer calls up the sales rep and says, "We just purchased a new machine tool and I would like to connect it to my monitoring software. What do we need to do in order to make that happen?" The sales rep then has two responses. Either they have the adapter for the new machine tool or they don't. If they do, then there is usually a charge for the adapter, as well as a charge for someone to come out from the software company to install it. If they don't have it, then they will offer to have someone from their professional services organization give a price for writing the adapter. This is typically someone who will cost $150 to $250 an hour to write that adapter. If you decide that you want to integrate the monitoring software in with other software from your existing enterprise, then you will likely be charged to have this type of integration work done as well.
The price can be high, so it is natural to think about different ways that you might be able to get the adapter written for less money. Getting a consultant naturally jumps to mind! You reach out to a few consultants and they all tell you the same story. The software company does not document how to write adapters or how to integrate with their software. You are locked in with the vendor. You are now in what I like to call "adapter hell." This adapter hell is why only 4 to 5 percent of all machine tools are monitored today.
Adapter hell is why it absolutely does matter how the adapters speak to the manufacturing equipment. How would it be different if you had an open and royalty free, as well as open source, type of protocol for the adapters such as MTConnect®?
MTConnect® speaks in the exact same language that runs on the internet today – http and XML. The beauty of http is that it is the same protocol that moves information around that you also see in your browser bar when you type in http://ESPN.com. XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language and is the data language of the internet. In other words, it is the letters, words and dictionary that describe the data itself. Here's the bottom line with MTConnect – it gives you freedom. It gives you the freedom to have someone else besides the software vendor provide the adapters for you.
Instead of being in adapter hell, by using MTConnect you end up in adapter heaven. Since MTConnect is open source and based on standards, it is easy to find someone to write an adapter. You are not locked into the vendor. Since MTConnect is based on XML, it is brain-dead-easy to integrate that information into your other software.
So, does it matter HOW you get the data? It depends. Would you rather go to adapter heaven or adapter hell? Gates are what some software vendors want to put up so they can charge you outrageous prices for adapters, as well as very expensive installations of those adapters. That is why in a world without proprietary fences, who needs software adapter gates? How do you avoid adapter hell? The next time a software sales rep tries to tell you, "It's just a black box, don't worry about it," make sure you ask that person HOW they are getting the data and make sure that software vendor has MTConnect as an option.
Adapter heaven is much better place than adapter hell.