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Dialogue: Manufacturing is Still a People Business

Rockwell Automation Chairman and CEO Blake Moret sees a highly automated future for plants and factories, but one in which simplification and empowering people with data-driven insights will be key.

In 1903, two years after Lynde Bradley invented the compression rheostat to control the speed of electric motors, he and Dr. Stanton Allen formed the Compression Rheostat Company. In 1909, the company was re-incorporated as the Allen-Bradley Company.

Decades of innovation followed, including the first solenoid starter with a single moving part, the incorporation of Allen-Bradley resistors in early mainframe computers, and the use of ferrite magnets in color televisions and computer memory cores.

In 1970, Allen-Bradley pioneered the programmable logic controller, and nine years later introduced Data Highway, the first plant floor network that replaced miles of wiring. In 1985, Rockwell International acquired Allen-Bradley, and in 2001 the company was officially renamed Rockwell Automation.

In February of this year, Rockwell Chairman and CEO Blake Moret sat down with the MLJ’s David R. Brousell to discuss industry trends, including the prospect of autonomous factory operations, the use of AI, and how advanced technologies may change the roles of manufacturing workers and leaders. MLC members recently toured Rockwell’s factory in Cleveland, Ohio, for a first-hand look at how Rockwell is running one of its own factories today (read the plant tour report).


Below are excerpts from the interview, which has been condensed for length and clarity.

Q: MLC research into the effects of the pandemic clearly showed an acceleration of the adoption of digital and automation. Are you seeing that acceleration continuing or has it leveled off or entered a new phase?

A: I think that the acceleration has continued. During the pandemic, people had to innovate because you couldn’t have the same kind of mobility, the same number of people from lots of different companies collaborating. Applications like remote monitoring, the need for cybersecurity modeling, using digital twins — all of these concepts got turbocharged during the pandemic, and they continued as people needed to continue to innovate during subsequent supply chain shortages. So I think those things that people saw could be done and could be done at scale have continued.

The urgency that was created during the pandemic has really persisted. There is no turning back now. Everybody was hunkered down and thinking about how they could gain share and do things differently. And so that determination and that commitment has continued.

Q: You have been talking for some time about Rockwell’s mission as “creating the future of industrial operations”. At your November 8th Investor Conference in Boston, you said, regarding automation, that “people need to have superpowers” now in plants and factories. Talk a little bit about what that means, what your vision of a factory or plant is going into by 2030.

A: First of all, I think there will still be people in manufacturing plants. There are examples, of course, of lights-out factories, I don’t think that’s the end goal for the vast majority of manufacturers and their processes. Rather, it’s taking the people and freeing them up for the things that people are uniquely qualified to do and giving them data-driven insights so that they can use their decision-making powers to add innovation to processes but doing it working closely with the technology.

Q: I want to dig a little deeper into that question because the research we’ve been doing at MLC clearly shows that autonomous operations are on radar screens. In our Smart Factory Survey, the results of which we published in January. 48% of the respondents said that they are anticipating some degree of autonomous operations by 2030, with 12% of that group saying they’re expecting fully autonomous. Rockwell has been emphasizing autonomous production logistics. Do you think autonomous operations, although they could be technically feasible, are desirable? 

A: I think we’re already seeing the benefits. If you think of traditional automation, that’s a portion of the autonomous operations equation in production, design, and control. That’s traditional automation — sensing, thinking, acting, taking inputs, interpreting them, and then changing the state of the final-mile devices. Add to that new forms of motion control or autonomous mobile robots, which is a big bet that Rockwell placed in the last few months, and you have a holistic view of what’s happening on the factory floor, along with people, of course. We’re already seeing companies across multiple industries making investments there, whether it’s the automotive industry, food and beverage, consumer packaged goods, life sciences, or in pharmaceuticals. All of them are seeing the opportunities in terms of the logistics of bringing material components to align and then taking finished goods away, moving it either to the loading dock or the warehouse. And above all of that, it’s the edge and the cloud information solutions to take all that data, bring it together, and give insights back to the people.

“I think AI has the opportunity to play a bigger and bigger role primarily to simplify the business of automation.”


Q: You mentioned the robotics side. Do you think the process side of the industry is further ahead compared to discrete?

A: I think that certain vertical industries have differing amounts of automation intensity. You can’t build a car, for instance, in discrete manufacturing without a high degree of automation, of programable controllers, robots and so on. In process, certainly control systems are managing the process loops, the integral safety as a part of that. When you think of a refinery or an ethylene cracker, there’s a certain amount of automation as well. Both have common threads. So there’s a need for open data exchange because there’s lots of different manufacturers represented on the floor, lots of different vintages of those products. And the ability to bring all that data together is a common need on both ends of the automation spectrum of applications.

But, there’s some basic common threads across all of those. And all of those industries see a need to simplify these processes because they all have a common need to be able to engage the broadest talent pool. And, of course, that talent pool in many cases has not more than a high school education.

And so the ability to provide technology that they’re comfortable interacting with and then the ability to grow during their careers is vitally important.

Q: Some people are saying that convergence is leading to the idea of data ecosystems. Do you think the ecosystem concept is something that’s going to actually take hold or are there too many issues around culture, around IP protection that are going to slow this down?

A: I think ecosystems are absolutely crucial and with industry-focused expertise represented within those ecosystems. If we talk about the technology of industrial operations or autonomous operations, there’s the expertise piece of it, the manufacturing lifecycle management that comes from people who are comfortable with these applications. And then there’s the ecosystem, because no one company is going to have all the answers.

When you think about the percentage that Scope 3 emissions play, it’s even more important to be able to assemble those industry-specific ecosystems. This may be the next frontier for us.

Q: You had a conversation at your recent Automation Fair with Microsoft’s Judson Althoff where he said “AI transformation succeeds digital transformation”. Do you agree with this idea? How significant a role do you think AI is going to have in manufacturers’ future operations and in how they think about their own competitiveness?

A: I think it’s a big deal. First, AI and its application in machine learning has been around for a while. A lot of the current press is around GenAI and ChatGPT-type language models. But the opportunity for self-learning, self-optimizing control systems has been around for a while and it’s having greater and greater impact.

In manufacturing, the ability to take difficult challenges in terms of process control, being able to look at areas where you relied in your plants on people with 30 and 40 years of experience who are now retiring, I think AI has the opportunity to play a bigger and bigger role there. We see it as primarily an opportunity to simplify the business of automation for our customers and for them to be able to engage a larger pool of workers as well as to reduce errors in standard, existing workflows.

There’s certainly a whole lot of internal processes in our own operations and in our own systems that can benefit from it. But I think we’re focusing first on what it can do for our customers.

“I do think that complexity is the primary deterrent to more rapid incorporation of technology in automation ….”


Q: What advice would you give to companies that are obviously aware of what’s going on but may not have stuck their big toe in the AI waters yet? How should they think about strategizing around AI and prioritizing investments?

A: Start with a well understood, finite problem that they have in their operations today. This is something that’s real, where they know that they’re going to get a big financial and/or time benefit by addressing it. Apply the resources on that problem, build the right team of experts, including everybody from the plant. People who are going to need to live with the incorporation of the new technology, to outside experts who can work well with their internal team. Get the benefits of that one challenge, and then expand it from there. And make sure the data is good.

Q: I was really thrilled when I heard you say simplification is going to sort out the winners and losers of this business in the next ten years because MLC has been focusing on the complexity issue. We’re very concerned that the more complex manufacturing companies get technologically, the harder it is to be resilient. How do manufacturers get the full benefits of often innovative, proprietary technologies that are coming out while at the same time avoiding the complexity that could lead to real daunting integration problems?

A: I think the simplification pertains to not just the technology, but the business model and the ecosystem as well. I do think that complexity is the primary deterrent to more rapid incorporation of technology in automation — whether it’s the way the pieces come together, the way that it’s required to maintain these systems, upgrade them, commission them, all throughout the lifecycle, and then the business models for being able to bring in the right technology and ensure that you’re getting the right support for it as well.

I think all of those aspects together point to the importance of simplification in these processes. That’s going to help us in the automation business to be able to see more rapid adoption of new technology.

Q: But simplification based on a rational architecture?

A: Yes. You do have to have that architectural component. Otherwise, you’ve got multiple architectures going on. Everybody gets into this journey at a different phase. They’re at a different point in time, and nobody is going to be able to adopt all the right technology, train the people in all the right areas, and to be able to say two or three or four years from now, we’re done.

It’s got to be a learning organization and, as you said, it requires an architecture that’s capable of ingesting new innovation as well. There’s a lot of new, innovative technologies coming at companies — whether it’s AR/VR, blockchain, or any of the technologies we associate with the emerging industrial metaverse set of technologies.

“Leaders need to have the ability to explain the why, to be able to recruit others to their cause at all levels of the organization.”


One of the biggest issues is just keeping up with the technology. But start with a problem that you understand. Don’t just go on a fishing trip. Start with something real. Solve a business problem.

Q: Thinking about the people who will occupy positions of leadership in the digital economy in the years ahead, what do you believe will be the most important characteristics that will define successful leadership of manufacturing companies as they become digital companies?

A: Well, let me start with what I don’t think is changing. I think that the leaders for today and tomorrow need to have a certain amount of experience, paying their dues with understanding what their processes are actually expected to accomplish. I don’t think there’s a magic formula. Even with all this new technology, leaders need to understand how things are being done and what the end goal is of their processes.

That being said, being comfortable dealing with volatility is key. What we have seen over the last few years are things that were never modeled before. Nobody did tabletop exercises to prepare for a lot of the things we’ve had to deal with. And so, you have to have a certain number of people who have the wiring to be, if not comfortable, at least understanding that this is a part of the job.

I think the other piece, as people managers, these leaders need to have the ability to explain the why, to be able to recruit others to their cause at all levels of the organization. That’s important. At the end of the day, it’s still a people business.  M

FACT FILE: Rockwell Automation, Inc.
Location: Headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Business Sector: Industrial automation and digital transformation
Revenues: $9 billion
Employees: 29,000
More than 100 countries

Titles: Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Rockwell Automation, Inc., and Chairman of the Rockwell Automation Charitable Corporation
Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Georgia Tech
Industry Presence: Vice Chair, National Association of Manufacturers; member, Wisconsin Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment; co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Advanced Manufacturing Community of CEOs; board member of the Business Roundtable; and board member of the Advanced Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI), Georgia Tech Advisory Board, FIRST Robotics, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha, and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee.

About the author:

David Brousell

David R. Brousell 
is Founder, Vice President, and Executive Director at the NAM’s Manufacturing Leadership Council.


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