Featured Interview -- Brandon Ellis

Brandon Ellis is the Founder and President of elliTek.

 

Brandon Ellis, elliTek, Inc.

ADDEDThursday, September 16, 2021

  • Q
    How do you describe to lay people what you do?
    A
    In a nutshell, elliTek is about moving process information relayed from the machine level to the data servers, be it cloud-based or hosted and vice versa. We move the little bits of information in an automated fashion between the plant floor and the IT side of things.
  • Q
    Do you specialize in any industry, product or discipline?
    A
    We like to say we’re known as the iPhone of MES data movement -- empowering our clients to really reach and transfer data between their OT systems and their upstairs ERP and database systems, and, of course, back down to the OT side.  
  • Q
    What would you say is unique about how you approach a project?
    A
    I tell my engineers, “Don’t be engineers!” I tell them to listen first and advocate second. That is, engineers specifically, and probably men as well, overall, we tend to talk more than we listen. 
    
    It’s very easy for someone to come and tell me what they want to accomplish, and before they finish their initial sentence, I’ve already decided what they need. This is the solution you’ve got; this are the problems you’re going to encounter and those kinds of things. But the fact is that’s nearly 100% false because everybody’s situation is different. And their processes are different, their data needs are different. Their hesitancies are different and fears. So, we try to listen and then advocate. 
    
    We also do a “what then” analysis. For example, the customer comes and says, “Our goal is to pull process data … pull the machine states and put them in a database.” Well, the next question should be, “OK, what then?” 
    
    Because a lot of times they haven’t thought that through. Just slamming a lot of data into a database server is like spreadsheet full of numbers and somebody hands it to you and there’s thousands of things there and you’ve got to figure out what it means.
    
    And sometimes more is just more. You want quality data. The “what then” helps us to really get to the end, really pull the layers off the onion until we help them help us steer them to what they need. 
  • Q
    What challenges are your customers facing right now?
    A
    The thing that I see the most -- this is kind of a hot button for me -- is salesy type, unrealistic marketing that, especially in the IT industry. This has been going on for quite a few years especially with companies with these huge, huge, huge, oversized marketing budgets. 
    
    A lot of IoT vendors began selling this beautifully marketed systems and they all start with a wonderful and nice dashboard, and it just looks fantastic.
    
    And it causes customers to hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. Unfortunately, a lot of times, it fails to measure up. 
    
    The main thing is the need for easy connectivity across the plant floor. You can’t collect the data, you can’t have a dashboard that’s that nice, you just – you’ve got to have the stuff to show. And then, of course, there’s the old saying as you probably heard “Garbage in and garbage out.” If the data is not quality data, then what are we talking about here? 
    
    It really bothers me when they failed to mention that a system is going to require multimillion PLC dollars/PLC controller update. “All your older legacy systems are going to have to be replaced, and we didn’t figure that into our budget, that’s your problem.”
    
    Or they failed to mention that it violates basically every IT cyber security thing that’s in the plant. And they do some server-based system that bypasses the main IT folks. And the fact is, it’s all fun and games until the budget is spent, and IT shuts it down. 
  • Q
    What kinds of trends and challenges are you seeing in industrial automation right now?
    A
    Well, we’ve got this labor shortage going on. If you’re not experiencing labor shortage out there in podcast land, congratulations because a lot of people are and not just industrial automation. Go to a restaurant, they’re not seating right now and not because of COVID separation or capacity requirements. They’re not seating because they lack the people. The statistic I saw was 41% of all able-bodied workers in the United States, anyway, are now re-evaluating their career choice and deciding what they’re going to do. 
    
    We’ve got fantastic demand; we’ve got ample supply, and we don’t have the labor to get it out. Honestly, that’s part of this semi-conductor shortage is all about as well. It’s not that we ran out of Silicon or whatever produces resin or it’s not that the trees are gone. It’s that we’re not able to get it out efficiently. 
    
    If you’re in automation right now, you absolutely should be busy. If you’re not busy, you’re not trying hard.
    
    The second thing is training. We used to look at ROI and calculate it by asking, “If we install this automation or native equipment, what will the production rate be” and that kind of stuff. And labor reduction, labor does come into play on that. But now you really need to look at it differently because of this labor shortage.
    
    It’s not about reduction of labor. Right now, it’s just about just keeping our head above water because you’ve got to make the truck. And so, automation now has – it takes the ROI in automation, and it pulls it way down. Go to your local bank and take a loan if you must because the money is cheap, and it’s going to pay for itself in a month kind of way back. And you haven’t let anybody go.
    
    If you’re listening in this podcast and you’re working at the factory, don’t worry, you’re not going to lose your job. We’re going to reclassify you and that comes down to training. And so, how you retrain those folks effectively? At elliTek University, that’s how we try to do that and that’s a regional thing for us in here in East Tennessee. We work with regional manufacturers on doing that.
    
    I’m a proponent of trying to help people level up if they want. But right now, it’s a need because we’ve got these projects that are more advanced or these processes that are more advanced. If you figured the ROI even on the old basis it just wouldn’t make sense at all. Reclassify the labor. 
    
    Let’s automate the easy ones and move them over, retrain them, even bump them up a little bit in the rate and you’re still going to have these great returns because you’ve got a process over here that now you don’t have to automate.
    
    And you’ve automated this other thing down here and it’s going to keep on giving. And you’ve created labor and you’re still back in the track. And so, it’s a good long-term investment, and honestly money is cheap right now so it’s a good time. 
    
    Those are the trends that I’m seeing -- a push for automation and a push for training.