Service responsiveness is key

Software Toolbox's managing partner and president, John Weber (pictured alongside) spoke with PACE on his recent visit to Australia.

Set up in 1996, the company's founders recognised that in the software segment of the manufacturing automation industry, customers were demanding greater interoperability in the packages they licensed. Software Toolbox partners with Wonderware in Australia.

How do your products fit into Australian industry?
It is true that Australia has a wealth of resources. But speaking with clients, I realise you've got cost challenges, skills challenges and not enough skilled people. But the goals are often the same with all the businesses I work with around the world. With miners, it's about maximising the yields — yield per ton of ore.

How do you do that when you have a harsh, remote environment. You can't get enough skills, quickly enough. When you do get them, they're expensive. The good news is we're able to help them do that.

Our products typically help people get connected to the control systems, work with things remotely, get data from the right sources so the appropriate people can make better decisions.

That's a common problem worldwide, regardless of the industry. The only variable around the world is the magnitude of the pain and what causes it.

Which specific products are you currently promoting in Australia?
We've been working with clients in Australia since our founding in 1996. Ironically, some of our first clients were mining companies or engineering firms doing work for mining companies down here, as well as in the whole Pacific region.

The biggest interest comes from device connectivity — OPC Servers. Users need data in real time to make good decisions. Everybody can connect to Rockwell, Siemens or Schneider hardware. But there's often a lot of other hardware and systems from which you need critical data. Our TOP Server product does just that and provides the user with a single platform for all their device communications.

Once an engineer has used TOP Server with one PLC or control system, the incremental knowledge required to use it with another type is tiny. This is important when you're in the market where there is not enough skills.

Let's say you've got a remote mine up in The Pilbara and you're in Perth trying to manage it. You must have a tool that can give you all the information for troubleshooting and diagnostics as if you were on site.

The miners here are finding they can benefit from our experience in oil and gas back in the US, where they have the same problem: remotely located assets; critical need for data; and not enough skilled resources.

What other products have generated interest in Australia?
One of them is our FactoryWidgets product. Think of gadgets on your computer desktop — weather, clock, stock and news information.

Well imagine being able to put process data there, particularly key indicators that will be of interest to those at a management level. The data could come from the production areas, say tons per hour, or percentage yield today.

We just visited a local gas power generator in Western Australia and they have a fairly big screen displaying a lot of data. But the manager is only interested in a few key data points, like megawatts of production or power factor.
Our FactoryWidgets product allows the placement of such data on a manager's desktop in a simple intuitive format.

If they require more information, they can just click on the relevant FactoryWidget to bring up web-based reports. These are then delivered by Wonderware HMI Reports, Wonderware Intelligence, Wonderware Performance or any other web-based application that has been implemented in their business.

The second product doing well here is OmniServer which is used to connect to a lot of obscure devices. We can get a lot of things done with TOP Server and the TOP Server User Configurable Driver, and if we can't, we'll get it connected with OmniServer.

How well positioned are you to tackle remote mining?
Our Cogent DataHub product is going to help with this whole move to remote access. When doing complex automation and control systems, things may look simple on paper. When you get down to it, there's a lot to consider in terms of how you move the data and move it remotely.

Also, you may need to take data from two different sources, combine them into an aggregate and then share it. I'm seeing a lot of interest in DataHub for these types of applications.

Do you see Software Toolbox as an internet company?
We do position ourselves as an internet-based company because we choose to use technology to reach clients we couldn't reach back when I started in this industry 23 years ago, and we have trained, qualified local partners around the globe that help bridge the time zone and distance divide.

But if you are going to be a company that supports their customers by phone and email, you must incorporate a philosophy of 'design for supportability'.

If you design your software properly and build in all the troubleshooting tools, there's so much you can do at the end of a wire and a cable to troubleshoot and to help the customer. If you're responsive, you can actually get things done more quickly for the customer who may be 10,000 miles away.

In our case, Wonderware Australia has the offices in Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney so if somebody needs to go on site, we have local people who know the product well.

Although we position ourselves as an internet company, we've proven over 16 years and 10,000 customers in every time zone, that this does not mean inferior support or inferior responsiveness. If you structure properly and have the right philosophy, you can deliver superior support.

We commit to our customers a two-hour response time during our business hours, and our local partners bridge the time zones with their front line responsiveness.

We track this and it averages anywhere from 32 minutes to an hour. When you email some vendors, often you get a reply saying they'll get back to you in 24 to 48 hours.

To me, that's an eternity. When you have a big mining operation, you can't afford that kind of shut down. They need an answer now. We get that and our structure delivers it.

What unique challenges do you face in Australia?
We face the same situation in Australia as in other markets where there are established and well known suppliers that can be perceived as being dominant .

Newer players coming into the market adopt a different approach to solve the same problems. We'd like to come and show users that we can do a better job — our partners at Wonderware can do a better job.

One thing we have seen in our visits to this market is that users have had some bad experiences poor implementations or application of technologies like OPC and that's given your users a bad taste about OPC.

I've found though in my visits here, through our technical transparency and willingness to show them the technical details of how and why things work in OPC in an Independently Lab Certified OPC Compliant implementation, is opening a lot of eyes.

I recognise it's tough when you're in a remote location. You don't get complete information, and you can only make decisions on the information available. Engineers are always open to more data and are interested to study it and hear it. Our technical focus as a company makes those conversations natural for us. 

That said, it takes time and it's almost evangelistic. You have to be willing to invest and spend the time to show folks why it's worth their trouble to take the risk and making a change. Why making a change to another vendor can help them move the needle in their business.

Otherwise, I don't see any unique challenges to the Australian market. Yes, you are remote; your customers are mining in remote areas. But I have customers in the Middle East and the North Sea and in the US, drilling for oil in remote areas.

Oil, iron, coal — what's the difference? With all due respect to the miners who may read this story, I recognise there's unique things to their space. We're very familiar with that because of our work with all the major players in the South African mining market.

Are you able to demonstrate a cost benefit analysis with your systems?
Absolutely. We can demonstrate this in the time it takes to configure, load up our software and get it going. It's sometimes half to a third of the time taken by competitive solutions.

I'm not Rockwell, Siemens, Schneider or Wonderware selling big products. When you consider the investment needed to use my products and the time it takes to deploy and maintain these is when a true benefit analysis is evident . So it's not hard to demonstrate cost-benefit when I hear that A$200 an hour is the billing rate for a system integrator for certain types of work.

On the other hand and based on your local awards the costs of hiring control systems junior engineers over here, it doesn't take much in terms of time saved in configuration, field start up and troubleshooting, for them to get a return on investment.

I was with a client this week showing him the concept of FactoryWidgets. He wanted to know how long it would take a systems integrator to configure it. I was sitting in Western Australia with my 3G wireless modem.

Right there in front of him, I configured a data point linked to a live data source back in the US. I dropped a FactoryWidget, configured two fields and there was live data streaming over the internet to his desktop. It took us two or three minutes. As you say down here, that's fair dinkum.

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