Tech Convergence Leading to Transformations in Controls

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If supply chains are what make the world work, then electrification and control devices are what make supply chains function. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that more than 90% of MHI member companies rely on some form of electrification or control technology in order to operate.

In an economy that is powered to ever greater degrees by the supply chain technologies represented within MHI, there is more opportunity as well as more responsibility to effectively manage growth in the sector on behalf of all stakeholders, including workers.

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As the ANSI-accredited standards developer for electrification and controls, the Electrification and Controls Manufacturers Association (ECMA) is the MHI Industry Group charged with creating and managing that opportunity and growth. Under the leadership of Jason Looman, chair, and Wayne Goodspeed, vice chair, ECMA is poised to take on even more responsibility.

It’s doing so because technological change demands it—automation, sensors and the systems that integrate them and make them work together are bringing new efficiencies and insights to supply chains that have traditionally been siloed from each other and from other aspects of production and warehousing processes.

“Controls are so much more integrated now,” said Looman, president of radio remote control manufacturer and MHI member Scanreco. “With overhead cranes, for example, not only do we have the capability to know what we’re moving from point A to point B, the crane can do it on its own and then feed that information back to a central control system for the entire facility.”

That transforms the control function from a reactive to a proactive operational component. “We can see how many movements are made on a crane, or from a radio standpoint, how many times a worker pushes a joystick or lever,” Looman said. “How do we then share such information with the entire plant or central control system, and how can this information be used elsewhere in the facility to signal or adjust downstream processes?”

Companies that may not have thought of themselves as falling under the ECMA umbrella therefore have a role to play in how the industry evolves. Given the rapid speed of change, work is already underway within ECMA to broaden its representation by encompassing additional industry categories.

“Whether it’s motors, drives, sensors, radio controls, displays, switches or even integrators, we’re in the right spot inside of MHI for that whole ecosystem,” Looman said. “Because at the end of the day we want to provide safe and reliable controls for people.”

With standards for radio controls, drives and electrification systems in place, Looman and Goodspeed argue PRODUCT SPOTLIGHT that now’s the time to expand the process and ensure everyone with a role to play in solutions development also has a voice in determining industry direction in the coming years.

“We want to bring member companies into our team so that we can collectively identify and address requirements and specifications for additional products and industries,” Goodspeed said. “The tribal knowledge of ‘doing it the way it’s always been done’ isn’t good enough.”

“By bringing together individuals with diverse expertise and viewpoints, we can be the guiding authority for electrical systems in the material handling industry—the expert source for specifications and guidelines,” Goodspeed said.

Working with managing executive Rose Haire on the MHI team, ECMA is preparing marketing materials and communicating with prospective members in preparation for an in-person push at the 2021 MHI Annual Conference, scheduled for October 3-6, 2021, at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge in Phoenix, AZ.

“Members of MHI that don’t have a home, their home should be with us,” Looman said. “We’re relying on Rose, who, I’ve got to say, is fantastic at her job.”

Benefits for new ECMA members include gaining that seat at the standards-writing table—specifications level the playing field and enable all industry competitors to reach a wider customer base.

“If a company makes a sensor, right now they probably have to find a way to integrate it into multiple programming and control languages,” Looman said. “If we can get all the control and programming companies in a room with the sensor companies, as a group we can all work together to direct the evolution of the technology together, in lieu of waiting to see what will come along.

Ultimately, there’s no substitute for that kind of personal approach to managing progress and evolution.

“We’re all competitors, but when we are in those meetings, we are working together as one team,” Goodspeed said.

Governance over change also stands to boost the electrification and controls industry reputationally—without governance, evolution and growth in any industry poses a challenge to safety maintenance.

“Nobody wants a robot that goes off the deep end and starts throwing things because it doesn’t communicate properly with a central control station,” Looman said. “We need to be having conversations now about how to ensure equipment from multiple companies will work together, safely and reliably.”

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