Brokaw gives perspective

May 5, 2008
By: Tim Heston

It"s not often a reporter for the metal fabrication industry gets to quote a speech by Tom Brokaw, but this week isn"t usual. I"m down in Orlando, Fla., attending SAPPHIRE, an information technology conference hosted by German software giant SAP, short for Systems Applications and Protocols in Data Processing.

You are the masters of the most transformational technology, the iconic newsman said during the conference keynote address. It is changing the world at warp speed.

That warp speed has spread across all industries. This week"s conference, with 15,000 in attendance May 4-7, is a horizontal experience. Information technology reorganizing, simplifying, and speeding transactions within and between companiesspan all of business, from retail and insurance to government services and, of course, manufacturing. All have their representatives here.

For years manufacturers and IT personnel didn"t necessarily see eye to eye. Historically CNCs, from their tape-reading origins, haven"t been the most open to higher architecture systems. In the early years of PC-based CNCs, a manufacturing engineer"s worst nightmare was when IT personnel, with good intentions, allowed some virus protection softwaremade for the office environment, not manufacturingdown to the machine controllers; he"d then watch the software conflicts ensue.

However valid the fears were, they aren"t as prevalent today. David Loomans is evidence of that. The SAP project manager of Greenheck Fan Corp., Schofield, Wis., gave a presentation today that described how his organization uses product configuration software that allows a customer to order Greenheck productswhich include fans, louvers, kitchen hoods, dampers and other productsonline through an intuitive process.

Using what the company calls computer aided product selection, or CAPS, the system asks the customer a series of questions that include dimensions, air flow, and other factors. Orders are processed and, often within minutes, sent down to the shop floor manufacturing systems, which include laser and plasma cutting, welding automation, a bevy of press brakes, and other equipment. The process essentially has automated the design and engineering functions for much of the company"s product line, including custom work that must be designed to fit in a certain space inside a building. Engineering functions still persist for certain work, of course, but the software now eliminates tedious, repetitive engineering tasks.

Today Loomans talked about the brains behind this system: a product configuration software package that defines a series of rules behind the intuitive user interface. Certain customer answers affect product design in certain ways, and only through a carefully crafted rule architecture can the computer interpret the customer"s answers correctly.

Embracing the technology, Greenheck has sped its order-to-manufacture time by 400 percent, Loomans said, all with software, something thatunlike engineers and salespeopledoesn"t receive a paycheck every other week.

Considering this, Brokawa world traveler who"s done most of his work face to face, talking with the world"s political and business leadersis a refreshing, but ironic choice for a keynote speaker. Laptops abound here. True, IT professionals must be expert collaborators to really thrive in business; that"s why so many of them are here. But for them, the keyboard is where the rubber meets the road. These are people who judge their success and failures by what they and their staffs can accomplish with software. That"s not a negative thing at all. Considering Greenhecks"s story and many others, they can accomplish a heck of a lot, and business wouldn"t be where it is today without them.

But during his keynote this evening, Brokaw added some healthy perspective. The former NBC News anchor told stories of his most memorable career moments, some of which didn"t make headlines. Recalling the 60s, he told a story of an 18-year-old civil rights marcher in Alabama who had received threats from racist whites. They said that anyone marching that night would be dead by morning, Brokaw said. The woman said she would march anyway. When Brokaw asked her why, she said, Because I have to.

Brokaw continued, Life is not a virtual experience. It"s handy to take your hand off the keyboard from time to time & It will do little good to wire the world if we short-circuit the soul.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314