USDATA Moves in New Directions

Superstition is not part of USDATA Corp.'s redefined direction under Robert A. Merry, new president and ceo since August 1997. Now, concentrating on enterprise control system (ECS) software, the 24-year-old company's headquarters occupy the 13th-floor of a modern steel-glass high rise.


Superstition is not part of USDATA Corp.'s redefined direction under Robert A. Merry, new president and ceo since August 1997. Now, concentrating on enterprise control system (ECS) software, the 24-year-old company's headquarters occupy the 13th-floor of a modern steel-glass high rise. Besides fine views of suburban Dallas and the countryside, some offices provide an occasional eye-level glimpse of turkey buzzards majestically riding the thermals. But a lot more than scenery is going on here.

After two financially difficult years for USDATA, Mr. Merry has a turnaround strategy in place (see CE , Dec. 1997, p. 3). His plan seeks to "add significant value in a short time period" by focusing on multiple products—that is, adding more software tools to and alongside its FactoryLink ECS core offering—but concentrating on a single platform, Microsoft Windows NT. (Previously, FactoryLink had DEC Open-VMS, IBM OS/2, and various Unix versions.)

Mr. Merry told Control Engineering during a recent interview that manufacturing plants will undergo a major change that must bridge the large gap between business processes and real-time control. Solutions will be driven by information technology, which represents a big opportunity for USDATA. "While software is important, process knowledge and integration are key ingredients to success," he remarks. (Mr. Merry's prior post was at computer services provider, EDS, as president of process manufacturing.)

While speaking candidly about recent "financial struggles," he adds that the company is in good shape for the future. "The multiplatform strategy was great in the past, but no longer adds significant value for growth," says Mr. Merry. "FactoryLink is robust; it has quality and a loyal customer base, but did not fully exploit Windows."

Other elements of the new strategy reflect the need to reduce costs. They include a simplified and integrated business model; service functions reformed to increase software content vs. service content (e.g., embed more needed services in software); marketing channeled through key distributors and partners; and a focus on specific market segments. Besides traditional commercial businesses, emphasis will be on the automotive, electronic assembly, and semiconductor sectors, headed by Mike Goeke, director of industry programs—another newcomer to USDATA. Formerly Mr. Goeke was at Automation Research Corp. and Siemens/TI.

As for products, upcoming additionswill include industry-specific packages, a manufacturing execution system (MES) layer integrated into FactoryLink (or sold as a standalone under separate name), and a soft-control tool obtained via third-party license. The MES product is being acquired. Released this month, FactoryLink 6.5 improves overall performance and the Windows NT interface, and adds OPC (OLE for process control) plus Y2K compliance. (See related cover stories.) And Windows-NT-only FactoryLink 7.0—expected by year-end 1998—will have the latest Internet features and Microsoft object-based models and tools.

WebClient, another US-DATA product, has been upgraded with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Using Internet/ intranet connections, it enables real-time "viewing" as well as secured access with "full control" to manufacturing and process operations. Local and remote capabilities are included.

The new strategy appears to be the right direction. Latest available figures (3Q97) show 85% of sales coming from NT products. Sharing part of his philosophy, Mr. Merry adds, "A bend in the road is not its end, unless you fail to make the turn." He believes USDATA is in the process of making that turn.

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