Building A Bridge To E-Business

Ex-TI executive builds enabling infrastructure.

Ken Spenser admits he once was part of the problem. But that was long before he founded Think & Do Software Inc. to provide the solution -- software that both controls production equipment and bridges the gap with enterprise information systems. He provided the manufacturing infrastructure that is standard at Dell Computer Corp. -- and approximately 1,200 other e-business firms. Those manufacturers wanted an integrated machine control and information infrastructure that could respond to the dynamic demand and customer delivery expectations inherent in their e-business models, explains Spenser, president and CEO of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Think & Do. "They knew that e-business needs more than a window-dressing of Web-based customer and supplier interfaces," he says. "They realized that e-business fundamentals start on the manufacturing floor with an infrastructure designed for rapid response and mass customization. Before the e-business era manufacturing departments might receive one order for a million parts. Today the trend is closer to a million orders for one part. That requires a machine control scheme where real-time manufacturing data is not trapped in proprietary, isolated systems." Spenser speaks with the authority born of heading an organization that was dedicated to selling proprietary, isolated systems. A decade ago he was vice president in charge of Texas Instruments Inc.'s programmable logic control (PLC) business. Spenser admits that the issues of selling machine control products were different before e-business. "First of all," he notes, "the product was a proprietary combination of hardware (the PLC) and software. That mirrored the early days of the computer-aided design and word processing markets where a CAD vendor like Computervision or a word processing vendor like Wang provided both hardware and software." Spenser admits it wasn't difficult to be part of the problem: "Our approach was to get in, because once a customer invested in your proprietary architecture, it was rather difficult to kick you out." He also learned that being both a hardware and software company isn't easy. "What happens in that kind of a company is that the focus of the software has a tendency to shift from solving the customer's problem to solving the problems with the gross profit margins on the hardware. The temptation is to create clever software packages that only run on your proprietary hardware. At first you force yourself into this situation and then it becomes easier and easier to repeat. In the end it becomes quite difficult to compete with a pure software organization whose motivation would be to create software that would run on everybody's hardware." Spenser left TI to serve as a Navy reservist in Desert Storm. At its conclusion he decided to satisfy his entrepreneurial urge in a series of software ventures that eventually led to Think & Do and its line of e-control software. (In March he introduced the latest version, Think & Do Live!, at Chicago's National Industrial Automation show.) While still at TI Spenser saw how software was becoming more important in the control solution. "When I started at TI, I was one of about 200 design engineers -- there were 150 hardware guys and 50 software guys. When I left 10 years later as vice president, there were still 200 engineers, but 150 of them were focusing on software." The first venture in Spenser's post-PLC business life was a Michigan-based CAD software company that targeted the automotive supplier base. "We learned how to do things on PCs and Windows NT that other people were doing with UNIX platforms," he says. The birth of Think & Do came after Spenser's CAD company was acquired by Autodesk Inc. After helping Autodesk run the operation for a little over three years, he left to establish Think & Do.

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