Broaden Expertise; Apply Proven Technologies More Quickly

Jerry Yen received his M.S. Physics in 1976 and M.S.E.E. in 1980 from Ohio State University. He later received a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He worked for Westinghouse Electric Co. for three years before joining General Motors Corp. in 1983. After joining GM, Yen designed and implemented image processing hardware and systems for manufa...


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Jerry Yen received his M.S. Physics in 1976 and M.S.E.E. in 1980 from Ohio State University. He later received a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He worked for Westinghouse Electric Co. for three years before joining General Motors Corp. in 1983.

After joining GM, Yen designed and implemented image processing hardware and systems for manufacturing applications, worked with various GM divisions intechnology development and automation system implementations, and led the development and implementation of machine intelligence technologies, including vision systems, neural networks, fuzzy logic, and sensing systems. Yen worked at the GM Technical Center until April 1996, when he transferred to the Advanced Manufacturing Engineering Department of GM Powertrain (GMPT).

Yen is one of the key persons in the development of the open, modular architecture controller (OMAC) concept and requirements. For the past few years, he has been working to incorporate OMAC requirements in GMPT's upcoming major programs. Yen is also instrumental in forming the industry-wide OMAC Users Group in the U.S. Recently, he is leading the effort in GMPT to better integrate plant-floor manufacturing control systems with information technology systems that support manufacturing operations.

In your experience, what do you consider to be the top three advances made in control and automation over the past 50 years? Which one of these do you think is the most important and why?

Three that come to mind are:

  • Invention of programmable logic controllers;

  • Invention of I/O bus technology, which gave people the ability to use devices from different vendors, reduce wiring requirements, and save money.

  • Integration of manufacturing with the Internet. If a company chooses to connect its manufacturing environment to the outside world using the Internet, and information security concerns are addressed, the ability to go through the Web is very, very helpful. The connection allows the suppliers to service machines, monitor machine status, and gather machine information remotely. If people still have islands of automation, they're not taking advantage of the technologies available.

There are probably many other advances to mention, but I think the invention of the PLC is the most important. It was the key factor of increasing 'flexibility' and 'productivity' in manufacturing automation. PLCs and, later on, PC-based controllers, gave users the ability to rapidly program logic, make changes, and move the programs from one controller to another without rewriting control logic or rewiring hardware. In the relay days, we had to rewire everything. Programmable controllers are now powerful computers that also give us the ability to communicate and integrate with many intelligent devices, thus making the manufacturing process a lot smarter. PLCs and PCs both have their own technical and business issues. However, they can certainly coexist and work really well together on the manufacturing floor. We take advantage of both technologies, and willingness to use both technologies gives GMPT a lot more choices. Evolution of usable common standards in manufacturing allows systems from multiple suppliers to be integrated much more easily. Examples include the IEC 61131-3 standard for programming, OPC DA standards, and the IEC 60204.

What do you think will be the next significant advances in control, automation, and instrumentation arena—within the next 5-10 years and, crystal-ball gazing, 50 years in the future?

Wide use of wireless technologies for automation and controls could be the next significant advance in this arena. Because machines are relocated in a plant quite frequently when processes require, using wireless infrastructure will help reduce network 'infrastructure' costs in a plant. If no network drop is available in the location where a machine is moved, it would be costly to add the drop in a wired infrastructure. Having a wireless infrastructure will simplify the process and reduce the cost associated with the relocation. It makes adding, taking offline, and moving machines around in the plants much easier.

Information security and interference of wireless signals are issues that need to be addressed, and we're working with IT experts to make wireless usable and secure in our environment. Beyond communicating information and data, there's big potential in using wireless technologies for controls, in both I/O and peer-to-peer control applications. However, there is a way to go yet, and wireless Ethernet still has to demonstrate its usability for control applications.

I have absolutely no idea what significant advances will come in 50 years. All I know is that people are creative, and many more technology advances will happen. The important factor is to increase the rate of 'industrializing' the technologies so that they are robust and easy to use for factory applications. Manufacturing people are generally more conservative in applying new technologies. But if the rate of 'industrialization' increases, the rate of adoption will increase. And this is essential to continue the gains in productivity.

In some cases, new technologies were deployed into factory environments too early. New technologies must be robust and usable and not cause more trouble than they're worth. One important step in deploying new technologies is to perform thorough validation of the technologies in the manufacturing environment. At GM Powertrain, we do a lot of validation and testing internally to ensure technologies are ready for implementation. It's just a matter of getting prepared for deploying the technologies, understanding what technologies are most applicable, having a good handle on all the technical and business issues, and knowing how the technologies fit in our manufacturing environment.

For some technologies, though, the rate of adoption has been too slow, and we need to improve the acceptance rate. I remember when the open architecture controls effort was first initiated, I spent a large amount of time convincing others that they were viable technologies for manufacturing. Everyone has his or her own opinions on new technologies, and I'm sure constructive discussions will take place when we are ready to implement wireless controls.

What will be the biggest challenges facing manufacturing engineers in the next decade with regard to plant infrastructure, technology, and the business of manufacturing in general?

Manufacturing engineers' biggest challenges will include:

  • Keeping up with the changes of technologies;

  • Transferring advances in other disciplines (Internet, computing, etc.) and applying them in manufacturing in a robust and easy-to-use way;

  • Becoming a multi-disciplined engineer;

  • Being very productive with limited resources. (Most likely, engineers will have to learn how to do this on the job; it is difficult to teach this at school.)

  • Implementing user-friendly systems that allow non-experts to keep up with technological advances; and

  • Integrating systems that span a long time horizon; in other words, dealing with technical issues that legacy systems need to be integrated with the latest architecture and work together.

The first few points deal with learning new technologies and the need to have knowledge in many disciplines. When I started as control engineer, all I had to worry about was the controller and what it could do. Now engineers in manufacturing need to know about controllers, computers, operating systems, and so forth. They need to know about connectivity, networks, and how to integrate controls with the network, and about wireless. Today, engineers need to have the willingness to learn new technologies and how to integrate the technologies into the core of what they are doing. I think GMPT is doing a good job exposing engineers to new technologies, so they can become more productive.

We also have been working with universities to help teach young people about using high-tech in manufacturing. We need to build a solid base of engineers who will come into this area of manufacturing with the right training and right experience to deal with the challenges. The next generation of engineers needs to be well prepared. On a different note, for the engineers who are designing automation systems, they need to hide the complexity of the automation systems and make them friendlier and easier for production workers to use.

Looking back over your career, have there been any unexpected surprises for you in terms of new technology, business developments, or industry direction?

Disappointed may be a better word than surprised. I've been frustrated by:

  • The amount of time it takes to make any new technologies usable and accepted in a manufacturing environment. It takes a lot of selling in some sense; and

  • The inconsistency of suppliers to properly implement industry and international standards. Many suppliers claim that they design their automation products to the standards, but there are too many instances when products designed to the same standard just won't work together properly. That's been a major disappointment. Some suppliers interpret standards differently or take shortcuts or liberties in interpreting the standards. In many cases, they created their own unique and proprietary solutions within the confines of the standards.

To advance their careers within manufacturing, what should engineers focus on in the next 10 years?

Engineers should:

  • Become knowledgeable in multiple technology/technical disciplines;

  • Develop the ability to manage many programs and activities in parallel;

  • Understand the business aspect of manufacturing;

  • Work well with people from different backgrounds and cultures;

  • Think globally; and

  • Learn to implement 'common' solutions with elements unique to local environments in a cost-effective manner.

Of this list, gaining knowledge in multiple technologies and the ability to multitask may be the key elements.

With limited resources available, engineers are expected to handle many programs and activities at the same time and be well organized so that nothing falls through the cracks. Engineers also have to understand business aspects in manufacturing, because they need to know how their technical decisions will impact the bottom line of their companies.

Prior to upgrading controls, automation, and instrumentation, some organizations examine processes and culture as well. Can you provide an example based on your experiences where paying attention to processes and culture helped the automation implementation (and company)?

GMPT has successfully implemented many programs in Asia (China and Korea) and in Europe (Hungary, Poland). Global thinking requires engineers to understand what local unique requirements are. There's always a need to push common systems globally, but some unique needs always come up. The key is deciding what should be the core of a common system and how much local uniqueness should be allowed. Properly balancing the two needs is a key success factor.

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On the topic of “Additional challenges facing manufacturing engineers…,” Yen continues…

It’s not just about how quickly the technologies advance. There are also legacy manufacturing systems that need to be integrated with the new technologies. The lifecycle of a manufacturing line is fairly long. With short technology lifecycles, we will need to deal with the integration of new technologies and outdated products and make productive use of the systems that were deployed 10 to 15 years ago. That’s a large time span.

Do you think most companies are looking at processes and culture as part of major technology implementations? Should they be? Why? Why not?

Yen: Absolutely! Not only the local people need to buy-into the effort, they have to be properly trained to operate the systems. If a company does not understand how things get done in a particular area in the world, it will not be effective in getting optimal results.

Please provide a favorite example of how you’ve been an advocate for change in manufacturing. What happened? Are there any additional changes you intend to try to bring about… and how?

General Motors Powertrain’s efforts from Clark Bailo and me in advocating the concept of open architecture control from 1994 have certainly impacted the manufacturing industry.

The open, modular architecture controls concept (OMAC) has changed the approach of implementing automation systems. The OMAC concept makes controllers and automation systems more modular and open and allows easy multi-vendor integration and plug and play of control components—resulting in reduced costs in implementing automation systems. The use of PCs as controllers, HMIs, data collectors, process servers, etc., in a manufacturing environment has become common and readily acceptable. The resulting industry-wide OMAC Users Group has made cooperation among end-user manufacturing and supplier companies a reality in resolving manufacturing integration issues.

Self-configuration of add-on systems and modules, rather than requiring custom configuration, will make system integration even easier in the future.

Anything else to add?

OMAC continues to evolve and change. Initially, the focus was open and modular at the controller level. That’s still an import element, but now the OMAC Users Group is also interested in how to integrate systems together very, very quickly. So OMAC has expanded from the concept of open and modular at the controller level, to the system level, and then to the MES level. Manufacturing now requires the use of controls and IT systems, because we are dealing not just with data, but data and information.

GMPT is moving toward more tightly in-tegrating controls and IT systems into a manufacturing execution system. The line between control engineering and IT is blurred for sure. The concept of OMAC may soon become OMES, Open Manufacturing Execution System.

OMAC started in the auto industry, and now it has expanded to different industries, such as packaging, aerospace, and others. The OMAC Users Group is also moving from an all-volunteer organization toward a more formal organization as a legal entity so that it can better address expanded needs.

Related information
GM Powertrain has operating and coordinating responsibility for 37 manufacturing plants and 11 engineering centers in 13 countries. Approximately 76,000 people design, test and produce about five million engines and five million transmissions a year.
GMPT on-board vehicle controls information

OMAC Users Group helps companies work together to establish a repository of open architecture control requirements and experiences, accelerate convergence of APIs (application program interfaces); collaborate with European and Japanese user groups in pursuit of a common international API standard; promote open architecture control development among control builders; and derive common solutions for open architecture control technologies.

OPC Foundation helps ensure interoperability in automation by creating and maintaining open specifications that standardize communication of acquired process data, alarm and event records, historical data, and batch data to multi-vendor enterprise systems and between production devices.

International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) prepares and publishes international standards for all electrical, electronic, and related technologies. The efforts promote national standardization and provide references for drafting international tenders and contracts.

Jerry Yen is manager, Common Controls Technologies group, within the Manufacturing Engineering organization in General Motors Powertrain. Also on the OMAC Users Group Board of Directors, he notes expansion of the 'open and modular' concept from controllers, to the system, then to the manufacturing execution systems level.