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Australia: short on expertise, excellent at absorbing technology

Plant Control and Automation (PCA) founder Adrian Smith will celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary next year. Having moved from Tasmania to Sydney, and having had several different posts, Smith decided he could do a better job than those he was working for so he set up his own business.

“When I first arrived, I worked in factories and did maintenance jobs,” he said. “I realised that most maintenance was needed due to the wrong selection of product in the first place. It gave me inspiration to design stuff that was a lot better and didn’t need to be maintained. If only they’d spent a little bit more money and gone about it the right way, they wouldn’t have had maintenance problems.”

While other kids were interested in the footie or other endeavours, Smith was busy getting to know electronics. And even among his boffin-like contemporaries, he was doing things a little different.

“My interest in electronics started in Smithton High School in Tasmania in 1958, especially solid-state electronics. While all my friends were playing with valves, I started playing with transistors,” he said. “The first transistor-based product I made was an amplifier for a crystal set radio.”

Smith never gave up on his boyhood fascination with electronics, and transistors in particular. He has plenty of anecdotes about the customers he’s helped over the years. One of the more memorable ones was at a brewery where he helped fix a particularly annoying problem for production staff.

“It was for Tooths Brewery on Broadway in Sydney,” said Smith. “They built a machine that was made partially of relays and partially of electronic equipment. It used to go crazy every so often and wipe out a pallet of beer. You can imagine a metal plate sheering through the bottom of the pallet. What a mess. It was a waterfall of beer going everywhere.

“They asked me to fix it. I said ‘this is rubbish. It’s got to start from scratch’. And they said, ‘well okay then, you build one.’ I thought, ‘well this is a good opportunity to use transistors’. [Dutch electronics specialist] Phillips was introducing these modules called Norbis specifically for the industry. I sat down and played with a simulator and came up with some principles and then built the palletiser control. Then, I built about 25 more of them around Australia.”

Fifty years is a long time in one industry and Smith as seen many trends come and go. One constant has been that although a lot of products have been developed in the US, those stateside rarely kick on with ideas on how to maximise their utilisation. PLCs and microprocessors are but two example that Smith cites as being invented in the US, but not developed to their full potential in that country. That was left up to the Europeans. Why is this? Smith isn’t too sure.

“The microprocessor was developed in the US, but they were slow to use them for industrial purposes,” said Smith. “To get a foothold into the microprocessor market, Phillips bought [US-based] Signetics, which gave Phillips all the technology long before the rest of Europe. Then came along the PLC, which changed the whole world. It started in the US with the likes of Allen Bradley. The first PLC that I can recall was from Gould Monicon but they were popularised in Australia by Texas Instruments with their 4TI and 5TI. Then Europe got hold of the technology and away they went. The PLC has revolutionised industrial controls.”

Having started his career when a computer would take up a whole room instead of a small space on your desk, Smith has become used to seeing one technology supersede another. And while he hasn’t always embraced change, he does have a computer, a smartphone and surfs the Internet. However, there is one part of the technology that bothers him.

“Technologies are being more diversified. And you’re seeing it in more places than you saw it before like the Internet. And there needs to be two Internets – one for business and another for the consumer. They’d be fussy about what goes onto the industrial one than the consumer one. Leave the consumer one for all the less important stuff,” he said.

As for the future, Smith noted a couple of trends over the past 10-20 years that are a little cause for concern. First, he feels the industry is fragmented and there is little standardisation of products. This is being addressed by Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things, however he is not convinced it will work. The second is the lack of knowledge at the starting point of certain technologies. He feels that a lot of graduates are not knowledgeable about the core of the industry. Sure, they know how to replace parts and programme PLCs, but he feels they don’t know the basics of the technology that goes into the making of a PLC.

“The fragmentation is good for the people supplying the equipment but bad for the factories overall,” he said. “From a service point of view we’re creating a nightmare for the factories. It happened with the railways years ago. All the British railways ran tracks with different gauges. Same as Australia. Every state had a railway with a different gauge. They didn’t have enough vision to think they were ever going to join up. There needs to be a consistent platform instead of every PLC manufacturer running his own ship. With modern technology, the more brains behind the technology are getting fewer and fewer as time goes on. There are plenty of graduates around, but they are not experts about the absolute core of the technology.”

However, it’s not all bad news. Smith said that one of the key ingredients to the industry’s continued success is the ability of Australian companies to adapt to new technologies.

“We absorb new technology faster than anybody else. Certainly faster than America. Even just as fast as Europe. The technological capability is here, but the market is not. That’s the way I look at it. So we have to be smart in how we manage that,” he said.

Smith thinks Australians also need to think outside the square when it comes to the process and control industry. He told a story of a friend of his who worked and lived in Germany. One day, the friend decided to leave the company he worked for and start his own business. He wasn’t surprised at his friend’s decision because he had always said he wanted to go out on his own. However, what did surprise him was the type of business he went into.

“He starting making granite lathes and milling machines. They cost a fortune,” he said. “I said to him: ‘Why are you doing this’? It turns out granite is 100 percent stable. No expansion or contraction when heated or cooled. No movement. No warping with time. No lubricant except air. He uses them to make the precision machines that make the precision machines. There’s only a couple of places in the world that do it. So, the whole world depends on it. There are some very bits of specialised technology that the whole world uses the results thereof. The real heart of the technology is not very big. We could learn from that.”

And the future? As mentioned, Smith is concerned about the lack of knowledge in the basics of some instrumentation, but said this might see a regeneration of specialists starting from scratch.

“We’ll be going back to some extent,” he said. “Buying standard products and putting them together to achieve a result is one thing, but you can still do it better if you start from scratch and design from the floor up. I think we are going to see products that are being made smaller and smaller. This is because product designers are taking advantage of new technology and redesigning. You’ll see more products that are designed for more dedicated uses and not so general purposes.”

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