I just finished writing an interview with Sid Venkatesh, Boeing Technology Fellow and Chair of the Organization for Machine Automation and Controls (OMAC). I’ve followed OMAC closely since its second general meeting in February 1998. That was during my first trip as an editor. In those days, the organization was just broadening from an original meeting of controls leaders for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. The idea was to develop a totally open programmable logic controller (PLC) that would end a company’s lock in with a particular control vendor. It was called the Open Modular Architecture Controller users group at the time–and the ARC Advisory Group provided some support.

In the first meetings, engineers from John Deere, P&G, Hershey, Boeing and General Dynamics were prominent. They then evolved into working groups: Microsoft Manufacturing Users Group (MS-MUG); Packaging; and Machine Tool. At one meeting in the early 2000s (I forget just which one), Ken Crater brought a Compact PCI chassis with various cards touting it as an OMAC controller. I pointed out that the vendor of the chassis he brought did not comply with the CompactPCI standard. <ouch>

Anyway, MS-MUG worked on some best practices for using Microsoft operating systems. It thought it would influence Microsoft to keep XP–nuff said? Microsoft lost interest in the user groups in the early part of this century instead focusing on solution providers. The machine tool working group still exists. It is developing standards for moving data among manufacturing software–CAD, CAM, CNC–using the StepNC technology. They have had some demonstrations of success. Boeing is the major user proponent of this.

Perhaps the most successful efforts were spurred by P&G, Hershey and Unilever (probably others) and by the technology providers hoping to unseat the incumbant control supplier at those companies. This was the Packaging Working Group. It developed PackML, Pack Tags and an entire standardized nomenclature and state model for packaging machines. At the last meetings in February 2010, P&G’s Rob Aleksa detailed the benefits his company has derived from the effort. Unfortunately, the proponents from Hershey and Unilever either retired or were re-assigned within their companies and some momentum was lost. Meanwhile, P&G would like to see the effort broadened to other machines that it procures.

Meanwhile, ARC couldn’t continue its support and the organization went to ISA and the Automation Federation umbrella–when that group was going to be an organization of organizations. ISA’s severe cuts last October cost OMAC a place at its table. And many of the founders have retired or gone on to other things.

OMAC really needs to gather its remaining leaders and figure out where to go and what to work on. It has lost some enthusiasm from suppliers who were not able to displace the dominant control suppliers. So it is at a crossroads.

Meanwhile, there are other organizations in a similar situation. What I’d like to do is figure out some kind of “thing” where we could bring in several of these under an umbrella–not to run them, but to have a venue for their conferences. If you’d like to help, let me know. Or send ideas. I have a few. Maybe we can work out something.

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