Russell D. Hoffman Interviews Bob Engman, President, Opto 22


Interview with Bob Engman, President, Opto 22

An interview by Russell D. Hoffman on his radio show HIGH TECH TODAY.

The following is the full transcript of a radio show broadcast on radio station WALE. The views expressed are solely those of Russell D. Hoffman and his guest and do not necessarily reflect anyone else's point of view.

June 28th, 1995

Russell Hoffman ("Host"), High Tech Today
Bob Engman ("BE"), President, Opto 22.

Host: ...My guest today is Bob Engman. He's the President of Opto 22, Inc., in Temecula, California. Opto 22 manufactures switching devices and control equipment for factory automation, and they use PC's, and so they are able to transfer information from the factory floor into the front office, and he's also--they recently moved their company, uh, I guess about 60 miles, 75 miles, and they have over 200 employees and didn't loose a single employee in the move. They're obviously doing something right. We're going to talk about that later in the show, but right now, I'd like to welcome you to the show, Bob.

BE: Hi Russ!

Host: Let's talk a little bit about what sort of products your company manufactures.

BE: Well, our product line has evolved over the years, we started the company in 1974 so it's just about 22 years old. We started making optically isolated solid state relays for control. In 1978 we introduced a group of I/O modules, plug-in I/O modules, into a printed circuit board that plugs into a microcomputer, and that became a very popular product throughout the world, sort of an industry standard now.

That was towards the beginning of our foray into industrial control with a computer. Since that time the product line has evolved so that we are now very much heavily involved with both hardware and software to do industrial control, and process control, using the PC as the base.

We make about 600 different hardware items, and what we have now is what we call a Mystic Controller, and that Mystic Controller contains all of the hardware necessary to communicate with the outside world, turn motors and valves, sense outside parameters like pressures and temperatures, and respond to programs written on a PC, with a very simple control language, a very elegant control language. It's a graphic control language where all one has to do is write a flowchart of the process or control that needs to be done, and then this program can be downloaded to the Mystic Controller. The Mystic Controller then can perform all kinds of control out on the factory.

These controllers can be spread out around the factory and communicate with one another and also to a host computer. So, we've been pursuing this idea of industrial control with a PC for the past, oh, I would guess since the early 80's and its just been an evolutionary process.

I think we've probably got at least seven years of development work in the software--Cerano. So that's kind of a brief, in a nutshell, what we do here.

Host: Cerano is the graphic control language that runs on the host.

BE: It's a graphic control language. On top of Cerano we also have what we call a man-machine interface that allows you to portray what's going on, all the parameters in a process.

Host: What are some typical industrial processes that are particularly applicable to your kind of automation devices?

BE: Well, let's say, semiconductor manufacturing. Process control in a semiconductor plant.

Host: So, that's a real big-ticket item.

BE: Yeah, that's a big-ticket item. One of the very interesting recent applications has been the manufacturing--there's a big machine by Connors Peripherals which makes their disk drives--

Host: Yes?

BE: And, the entire process, from beginning to end, is controlled by a Mystic Controller. It's used in the food industry, for example maybe you want to make Skippy Peanut Butter. Material handling. Anything that really requires industrial--some kind of control. The pharmaceutical industry would use these ... Automotive industry. There's a new high-tech paint lab a General Motors, which is totally controlled by a Mystic Controller. Bausch and Lombe is recently working on a new process that uses the Mystic Controller.

Host: A lot of the automotive industry is highly robotic...

BE: Right. You could use a Mystic Controller. One possibility would be to use a Mystic Controller to interface and control the robot. So, you could write your program on a PC, tell the robot what to do. The Mystic Controller then operates the robot. That's one possibility.

As a matter of fact recently there is a factory in Japan that is using Mystic Controllers to manufacture sake! (Laughs.) It's sort of a generic, universal type controller.

Host: Well, the Mystic Controllers won't take a 'nip [of sake] every now and then?

BE: (Laughs.) Maybe so!

Host: ...Just saying that something controls a robot... That's really a very simplified way of expressing something that's really very complicated. And, what I'm wondering, but we're going to have to take a break, and when we get back maybe you'll go into a little bit of detail about what that process might be like, of actually writing a control program for these things, but right now, we're taking a break on WALE, renegade radio.

Host: ...We were talking before the break about manufacturing: Using your Mystic Controllers for robotic applications, and I'm just curious: What sort of steps does one have to go through to control a robot using your equipment?

BE: Well, the first thing you need to do is define the sequence of events that the robot has to perform. And that's a fairly simply task. You have a list of things: "This arm has to move this direction so far, maybe a hand closes--" there's a whole sequence of events that has to happen. Now these events are obviously--the movement of the robot--are controlled by little motors, and hydraulic valves, and so forth. And, there have to be units that can operate these real-world devices, like motors and solenoids and valves. Our I/O modules perform that function. They are optically isolated from the real world and they communicate with the computer.

What you do then, is define your sequence of events, and on a PC, with a mouse, you draw a flowchart. The flowchart then defines what you want that robot to do. You can fill in the flowchart with simple English commands, like "Turn motor three on. Turn valve four off."

What you can do then, is you have to ability to use that PC, talking to a Mystic Controller, and the Mystic Controller talking directly to the robot. Or, there is also a computer on the Mystic Controller. That program, that you've written on a PC, can be downloaded to a Mystic Controller, and that Mystic Controller then will perform all those sequence of events that controls that robot, and will respond to local events. It can measure such things--also we have a series of analog to digital modules that can measure pressures and temperatures and convert that to digital computer language for feedback to tell the computer what's going on. So it's a very organized, simple English procedure for controlling a complex process or machine. Now, there's an awful lot of software and hardware development that makes it appear quite easy to the user. And that's been our thrust over the years.

It's almost a necessity in today's world where things are getting so complicated, to put the complication into the devices that people use so that the difficulty becomes transparent to them. And that's been our whole thrust with the development of this Mystic Controller.

The reason we call it a Mystic Controller is, a number of years ago--one of the most difficult things in designing a new product is determining what the name should be, and our graphics arts people came one day and said, "Well, we're optimistic about this new controller." So we decided to call it the Mystic Controller, and we're very optimistic about it today.

Host: You mentioned the other day that you're working very closely with Microsoft.

BE: Yes, we are.

Host: A couple of questions on that. Knowing them, you've signed some non-disclosure agreements, but with what you can tell us: How did you approach them, and what are you doing with them?

BE: We're doing development for new products. Microsoft has a whole series of back-office products. And what the concept is, is that they can...provide a backbone for a factory, whereby all kinds of software packages can be utilized to bring information up to the front office.

Excel, and all those various kinds of software packages, front office packages that you can buy off the shelf--they'll plug right into the backbone. Opto 22 is working with Microsoft to be able to communicate with that backbone so that all kinds of information from the factory floor can be fed into a Mystic Controller--who is also by the way doing the control--process information, any kind of production control information--will go into the Mystic Controller. The Mystic Controller will then talk to the Microsoft back office software suite, and then that information is available to the front office to do what they want with it.

We are currently porting the Cerano control language to Windows 95 and C, so we will be able to offer the Cerano control language running on Windows 95, and we expect to announce that August 24th, the same time that Microsoft ships their Windows 95.

Host: Were you, uh, oh never mind, I don't want to ask whether or not you also had delayed it a year! Forget I asked--

BE: We've been working rather feverishly for the past six months!

Host: ...Let's turn now to what the company is like. Why not tell us a little bit about how it's grown, and then, how you keep people--how you get people, too.

BE: Oh, okay, well you know, I think that's probably one of the most significant features of a company.

We started the company in 1974 to actually manufacture optically isolated solid state relays, which I had previously sort of pioneered the development of at another company. I started my first company in 1960, starting in my garage with another fellow from--an engineer that I knew back in Westinghouse. I started working for Westinghouse as a young engineer in 1954. We came to California in the heyday of the defense industry, the wild and woolly business days, and were not very well satisfied working for a large company, so we started our own company in my garage, and in 1967 we sold it to another company, a larger company and it was kind of an unhappy experience because I was back in bureaucracy again. So in 1974 we parted company--I worked there for about six years honoring an employment contract.

And so started--I had a better idea for how to make a solid state relay so we introduced solid state relays and they were used in the early days by the computer people--disk drives. Thousands and thousands of those [were] used. So we sold them to Sperry Univac, and Burroughs, and various people.

And the idea was that we were going to make the most reliable product possible. As a matter of fact it's turned out that way: We 100% test everything we manufacture, to ensure reliability. But, I was never happy in large corporations with their bureaucracies, and uh, the stifling atmosphere with respect to how people were treated.

I didn't believe that companies could be run by numbers, and I think there's a lot of examples of that--

Host: Okay. You're probably right but speaking of numbers, unfortunately we have to take our second break, so why don't we do that, and we'll get back to the exciting part of what happened at Opto 22...(break)...if you've been listening to the rest of this show you're probably on the edge of your seat right now, wondering: "How does a high-tech company keep good employees?" So let's get back to Bob and find out what he's been doing.

BE: Well, what I've been doing, Russ, is pretty simple. I call it Management By Common Sense. Over the 40 years I've been in business I've seen all kinds of management fads. And I decided that, you know, an organization that put emphasis on giving people freedom and trust, was an organization that could really work. And that's what we've done here at Opto 22.

We just really don't have any bureaucracy. We really don't--I've never drawn an organization chart at Opto 22. Obviously, we have a sales department, we have a manufacturing department, a marketing department and an engineering department. But we've never really hardened those lines. They're sort of amorphous, so that we've created an atmosphere here where it's a whole--it's teamwork. And you know, we share tasks here. And people are given the freedom to do their work.

As a matter of fact, I'll give you an example. We have here, about 175 people in manufacturing. We have one person that runs that shop.

The other thing we've done over the years is we've had profit sharing for our employees, oh, for the past fifteen years. We pay that profit sharing every three months--quarterly--and it's never been less than 15% of a person's annual wage. We also pay all of their medical benefits, and we have a company-paid pension fund.

So we've had, you know, and the hourly wage in our shop now, I think is about--the average is I think pretty close to ten dollars an hour.

So, it's kind of simple I think. So much of management is keeping people from doing their work! We decide, every three or four months what we need to do from an engineering standpoint. We have a little meeting, decide what the priorities are going to be, and then we go to work. We don't waste much time, and we don't over-staff.

We always feel it's very important for everybody to feel that they're making a contribution. So we've made sure over the years that everybody has plenty of work to do, and then they feel real good about themselves, and then when they get that profit sharing check, they feel like they've made a contribution. And, we have such continuity among people here that, it's surprising, how they will correct each other's errors and so forth as they occur because they're all...working together.

Host: You mentioned trust and responsibility and giving people the freedom to do what they're trying to do--that sounds a lot like a very famous place, the Skunk Works and Kelly Johnson, the way he ran his shop. So, uh, congratulations--it sounds like you're doing a great job!

We only have a little time left. Do you want to tell people how to get in touch with you? I don't know that too many people are going to be coming from Rhode Island to California to look for a job, but I was thinking more of the sales office or something like that. Someone might want a highly reliable solid state controller of some sort.

BE: (Laughs.) They might. Recently, we're beginning to set up sales offices around the country. We're going to set one up in Boston, there's a local office being set up now in Chicago...

Host: We're getting near the end about thirty seconds, what do you think is going to happen in the next ten years in your industry?

BE: What's going to happen in the next ten years? A tremendous expansion of productivity. It's just amazing how the microcomputer and the PC is invading every aspect of industrial control. And you know, the United States is the world leader. You know, our software--there's nobody that does it like Americans. And it's being used all over the world. It's going to be a very interesting time for American Industry. Productivity's going to continue to increase. More and more computers are going to be used for communication and bringing the information that an organization needs to be effective.

The computer's now performing all of the information handling that layer and layer of middle management used to do. The computer does all that much better and much quicker. Real-time information. And that's the big thrust in the next few years, is real-time information from the factory floor on up into the front office.

Host: Middle management never did anything productive anyway!

BE: (Laughs.) They got in the way!

Host: They taught everyone else how to get around problems!

BE: (Laughs.) Right!

Host: Namely themselves. Okay. My guest has been Bob Engman. He's the President of Opto 22 in Temecula, California. Makers of factory automation and process control equipment that uses PC's and connects directly to the front office. I think it's fascinating stuff, it's been wonderful having you on the show. Thank you very much--

BE: Thank you!

Host: And thanks everybody for listening... This has been High Tech Today with your host, Russell Hoffman. Bye Bye.

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Related Material Outside this Web Site:

Opto 22 in the news: In the summer of 1996, OPTO 22 became one of the first two recipients of Microsoft's Leonardo Awards for Technical Innovations in Manufacturing.

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