Featured Interview -- Bob Vavra of Endeavor Business Media

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Bob Vavra is senior content director for Machine Design and Power & Motion, both published by Endeavor Business Media.

 

Bob Vavra, Endeavor Business Media

PostedThursday, February 17, 2022

  • Q
    Let’s switch gears a little bit. Let’s talk about your relationship with CSIA.
    A
    My approach to CSIA is that the system integrator is unbelievably valuable to what’s going on in manufacturing. We talked about the small to mid-size manufacturers earlier. And one of the most important things is that they don’t have the size or the staff or the bandwidth to be able to have an integrator on staff all the time. For GM, sure, they have integrators within their organization. A small to mid-size manufacturer can’t do that. It’s just not feasible because they may do an integration project and wait 12 to 18 months to do another one. Where the integrator comes in is with a tremendous amount of expertise, broad expertise in the industry as well as the ability to synthesize those types of solutions, to a customized solution for a given manufacturer. Integrators are tremendously valuable in helping to advance automation on a very broad basis but more importantly, bring very customized and very focused solutions to a lot of small to mid-size manufacturers. That’s a concept that I want to support, that Endeavor wants to support. And so, that’s the core of the relationship that I want to continue to foster with CSIA and its members.
  • Q
    What makes you optimistic about the future of the automation industry?
    A
    First, how far it has come in such a short period of time. Manufacturing has been so adaptable during the pandemic. They had to – remember how much product and how many new products we had to create literally and figuratively out of whole cloth in the shortest period possible? We used technologies that had never really been used before including artificial intelligence and machine learning that are just up-and-coming concepts in the industry. Look how aggressively manufacturers met the challenge and solve problems on the fly. I think the challenge to the industry now is don’t stop. Let’s continue to innovate at speed because the pace of change has accelerated dramatically. And it didn’t just start with the pandemic but over the last 3 to 5 years, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of change, but those changes were theoretical, those changes were suppliers coming up with solutions. It wasn’t necessarily manufacturers watching behind to adapt those solutions. During the pandemic, that’s exactly what happened. And now, it’s one step further than that. Now, how do we continue to bring along those people who still need to modernize their facilities as well as accelerate the kind of growth that we’ve seen? The one thing I know for sure is that if you are not embracing things like artificial intelligence and machine learning and data management and IoT today and you’re not getting ready to do that over the next 5 years, you’re going to find yourself in a competitively disadvantaged position. And that is going to make it difficult for you to continue to be part of, whether it’s a national or a global manufacturing environment, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to have to be using data and you’re going to have to be using machine learning and you’re going to have to be using robotics efficiently and effectively because it’s going to be competitive advantage for everybody else.
  • Q
    What do you think the biggest challenge is facing the automation marketplace today and in the future?
    A
    It’s a few things. One is dealing with the data, effectively dealing with all these data points that have been collected. They’re now being organized better. They’re now being distributed better. But we still haven’t gotten anywhere near where we need to be from an automation data standpoint to get what I’ve said is the right information to the right person at the right time in the right context. The purchasing department doesn’t need to know how many pieces you’ve produced that day. They just need to know where to send the invoice. By the same token, the person on the line needs to know what’s available in terms of additional parts coming in so that they can finish all the things that they need to do. Data needs to be personalized, and it needs to be very democratic. It needs to be spread across the manufacturing facility in a very effective way. We are coming to grips with a more robotic environment to use our people to their greatest advantage. If we have fewer people, we are going to have fewer people. Then how do we take the greatest advantage of what they do well and leave some of the other work, the more dangerous, the more back-breaking, the more routine or mundane work and give that to a robotic cell and use the people as effectively as they possibly can? We are going to have a day of reckoning around the idea of, are we a global manufacturer or are we a regional one? Are we a local one? The supply chain disruptions, some of them are real. Some of them have been man-made. All of them are affecting and changing the way we are looking at how we source and manufacture in our environment. If you are a global manufacturer, you still need local sourcing. How much product gets moved across oceans these days is one of the big discussion points that’s still coming, and how much is available, and what’s the most cost-effective way to do it. We saw some of this after the recession in 2008, in 2009. We are seeing more of it today. And it’s a great discussion to have. It’s not a simple solution. It’s not about offshoring or onshoring or reshoring. A term I’ve always used called right shoring, getting the materials you need to do your manufacturing operations as efficiently and effectively as possible when you need them.
  • Q
    What trends are you seeing in industrial automation right now?
    A
    We are starting to see people better understanding and more comfortable with the technology. Some of this was forced. There were decisions made over the last 2 years during the pandemic that were made of a combination of no other choice and desperation. And we’ve integrated a lot of robots. We’ve integrated a lot of systems. And now, we can kind of step back and say, “OK, what did we do? Why did we do it? And now, what can we do better with this? Is it optimizing the robots we have? Is it optimizing the automation we have or is it adding to that? Is it figuring out well, we were able to get through this period with two or three fewer people, we’re not able to hire two or three fewer people, maybe we can roll this out into other areas of the organization?” They’re trying to find that balance between automation, robotics and people, and it’s a very individualized discussion. There’s not a cookie cutter solution out there. CSIA knows that better than anybody because there isn’t a single system integration solution that works for everybody. It’s very customized. And so that’s what the challenge for your membership as well as our audiences is that how do I take all of this and find something that works for me?
  • Q
    What challenges are your readers facing right now?
    A
    Well, there had been one or two over the past couple of years. The biggest challenge in the industry right now is integrating the technologies effectively, integrating them alongside your people, integrating them alongside other technologies, getting them scaled properly. You see some of these projects, and they seem like they are only applicable to 5000-worker plants or billion-dollar manufacturing facilities. One of the things we try to talk a lot about is that small to mid-size manufacturer, the scalability of the automation technology that’s available today. We spend a lot of time really trying to focus in on that group because that’s where most of the manufacturing is done, that’s where most of the value is created in the manufacturing space. They tend to be risk-averse, but if you can show value in the risk, they will not go through nine layers of management and plan, they will get done very quickly.
  • Q
    What advice do you give to engineers who hate to write, but want to be published?
    A
    There is an old newspaper saying that goes something like this: What we need are not better writers; what we need are better reporters. If we start with the basic information and we have the right thing that we want to tell the audience, my job, my team’s job is to turn that into prose that flows well and is grammatically correct, is functionally correct. Those are all the things that editors do. I’d rather have a bunch of scribbled notes from an engineer and put them together into a more attractive package at the end. I don’t expect everybody to be able to write. I certainly couldn’t go in and do their jobs. There’s too much pressure that we put on engineers to write great. What we need to have is great information, great insight, great knowledge, the rest will come from there.
  • Q
    What are your favorite kinds of stories to do?
    A
    I love getting out into the plants and kicking the tires and meeting with the staff and talking about their specific problem. The best stories are the ones that take all these concepts out of the abstract and put them into the practical solutions.
  • Q
    Tell us about your readers.
    A
    We’ve done a lot of research in this area. The overwhelming majority are men. We have an initiative with Machine Design and our design and engineering group called Women in Science and Engineering or WISE, and we are working on trying to highlight and celebrate what I’ve been told by my staff very clearly, are engineers who are women -- not women engineers. That distinction for me is very important. We want to talk about engineering first. As a broader group, their one common thing is that they’re always looking to get better. It doesn’t really matter if you have a 20-person operation or 2000-person operation. Your goal is to get incrementally better all the time. So, we talk about the technologies that allow that to happen as well as the strategies that allow that to happen because the two must run in parallel to one another. You can’t just drop an automation system into a plant and expect everything to be better. There is a process by which automation succeeds, and we want to talk about the process as much as the technology. The other thing that our readers have in common is that they are at the core of the operational and design elements of a manufacturing facility, but they need to be able to talk up to the C-Suite and be able to say to them, “I think this solution will work.” So, we talk a lot about ROI. We must talk a lot about how these things get done and where the cost benefits are. It’s not always easy to see, and it’s sometimes things that you must be a little more patient on, and that’s a difficult conversation to have with your chief financial officer. We are trying to arm the readers with as much of that information, what’s the ROI on a given solution, what do we have to do from a training standpoint, what do we have to do from a staffing standpoint. If we put all those ideas together, eventually we will have a clear picture so that they’re at least well-armed to go forward and have those discussions.
  • Q
    How do you describe to laypeople what you do?
    A
    I go back to the storytelling idea. I tell people, “Look, I’m not an engineer.” I say, “The only screwdriver I’m allowed to handle at home has vodka in it.” I am not the person that you want on the engineering side of business. What I do is I find smart people. I give them a forum, and I get out of their way and let them communicate. My job is to be the conduit between the people who have the information and the people who need the information. And that’s where, if I have a skill set, that’s where it is, in the ability to help those people who are telling the stories tell it as effectively as possible and get it out to the audience and, hopefully, everybody benefits from that process.