Tony Paine is the president, CEO and co-owner of Kepware Technologies in Portland, Maine, which specializes in advanced communication software for automation. Founded in 1995, the company develops communication drivers to automation controllers, I/O and field devices. Its interoperability and connectivity software provides managing, monitoring and controlling capabilities for industrial automation applications in such areas as IT and infrastructure, manufacturing, oil and gas, power distribution, and water and wastewater.
Paine graduated from UMaine in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. In 2009, he was inducted into the College of Engineering Francis Crowe Society as a Distinguished Engineer.
2011 was an award-winning year for Kepware. Its honors included an Engineers Choice Award for the second consecutive year by Control Engineering magazine and a Kinetic Process Innovation Award by Kinetic Information, LLC. Automation World magazine cited Kepware as a First Team supplier in its Leadership in Automation 2011 program. The company also received a 2011 Business at Work for Maine Award from the Finance Authority of Maine and a 2011 Best Places to Work in Maine award from the Society for Human Resource Management — Maine State Council and Best Companies Group.
How did you get your start in automation communications?
I personally have always had a passion for developing software that interacts with hardware. As early as sixth grade (back in the mid-1980s) I developed a software application that allowed me to connect my TRS 80 Model 4 Microcomputer with a Panasonic Dot Matrix Printer — essentially an all-in-one word processor and printer driver, before printers and computers became plug-and-play like we are accustomed to today. Though I had taught myself computer programming at an early age and had created several programs prior, it was the completion of this particular project that solidified my desire to be involved with software applications that interfaced with hardware as a career path. This led me to study electrical engineering, with a concentration of computer hardware and software at the University of Maine.
I took a short trip to the Boston area after graduation, as I believed I had to leave Maine for opportunity. But I was unhappy with leaving our state and looked for opportunities back home. That’s when I found a company called Kepware Technologies that had been founded a year earlier by a gentleman with whom I eventually partnered. Kepware was founded with the initial goal of developing a low-cost Human Machine Interface application — a software-based application that allows operators to visualize an automated control system from a personal computer. Back then, these applications had to develop one-off communications drivers for each piece of equipment that our potential customers may have in use. A couple years into Kepware’s lifetime, the automation industry began some collaborative efforts to standardize the interface between equipment and software applications (much like we take for granted today that our applications will work with any off-the-shelf printer from any manufacturer). Kepware saw this as an opportunity to put all its efforts into the communications interoperability problem. It dropped its HMI efforts and turned to developing gateways that converted proprietary communications into well-known standards — the middleware that makes the automation of any control system possible. Over the years, we have brought our solutions into automotive, food and beverage, pharmaceutical and other discrete and process-control environments, as well as specialized verticals like building automation, power, IT, and oil and gas.
In one of your recent blogs, you emphasized the importance of moving information from the shop floor to the top floor. Why is that connectivity essential today?
The top floor is where you want to get complete visibility of your entire enterprise. It is where operational and maintenance decisions are made, and how well they are made can make or break a company in this competitive world. Years ago, operational decisions were based on historical data — trends over the past 30 days, quarter, perhaps an entire year. This information was provided to management, who then made the necessary operational adjustments, and sat back and waited to see how the changes impacted operations (the cycle would repeat as necessary). Maintenance decisions were done on a break-fix mode of operation — when something broke, operations (or part of it) were down and the right parts needed to be procured and installed to fix the problem. When a facility is supposed to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week in order to maximize productivity, this downtime costs money.
Today, industry expects to make operational and maintenance decisions in real-time. Any information that can be obtained, distilled and provided to the right people within the organization (not just management) at the right time will allow them to make the appropriate decisions sooner than later — allowing for an enterprise to function as efficiently and effectively as possible. For maintenance, if trends in equipment usage can be monitored and near-term failure can be detected, appropriate parts can be procured and maintenance can be scheduled during applicable downtimes and not during production periods. This allows for industry to build products in real-time, based on customer demand. All of this can save industry money. Subtle changes in process or personnel that affect productivity can be detected and cured immediately, rather than realizing that production volume fell short 30 days after the fact. Organizations no longer need to guess what spare equipment they need to purchase and keep on hand (as well as the costs associated with the management of these assets). Production can be focused on generating product that is in demand.
This can only be achieved when every piece of information can be collected, analyzed and shared between the different business units and their associated systems within the enterprise — from the plant floor to the control room, to business and enterprise management systems.
Which of the company’s benchmarks or innovation breakthroughs are you particularly proud of — and why?
Sometimes innovation takes a little luck. As industry standardized the interface between equipment and applications, the thought was that every equipment vendor would develop and provide the one-and-only standard interface for communication with its products. Kepware recognized a couple things in the early days. The first was that hardware vendors don’t always develop the best application-level software. Second was that, as a small company, Kepware (we were less than 10 people back in the mid-1990s) needed to develop a wide variety of solutions with minimal maintenance and overhead. The concern about maintainability pushed us down the path of creating a single platform that enabled connectivity to a wide variety of disparate devices — allowing for a single product codebase and significant code reuse. As a software company, we were able to deliver superior application-level services for other applications to interface with.
What we had not thought of early on, and what I mean by being lucky in innovation, is that enterprises are typically made up of a wide variety of systems, equipment and devices from different manufacturers. Though standards define the interface between hardware and software, every vendor interprets and develops its own unique solutions. Kepware’s single platform — though developed with maintainability in mind — provided the market with a common interface: configuration tools, diagnostic tools, runtime behavior and expectations across every piece of equipment we developed connectivity to. This was a clear differentiator in the marketplace.
How do you characterize Kepware’s growing international markets?
Kepware has always been an engineering-driven company. As such, a majority of our success has been through the optimization of our Web presence, allowing potential customers to find us, rather than proactively finding them. We have one office that houses all Kepware employees here in Portland. However, we service customers all over the world who are running their business outside of our Eastern Time Zone. In order to compete over the years, we have signed up several distributors who resell and support our products within their regions. Our prior success was simply creating a great product and hoping our distributors would become successful on their own. What we have recognized over the years is that we need to provide more — we need to provide the appropriate training, marketing and product material, localized for the various languages and regions across the globe. We also need to be proactive to ensure that we understand market needs around the world and ensure that we are delivering the appropriate solutions to meet real world needs.
Recently we have invested significantly in our sales and marketing teams and initiatives. These teams are being developed to better support our distribution channel. In addition, we plan on additional co-marketing, representation at regional events and expansion of our connectivity options, based on the dominant hardware vendors within a specific region. This dedication is already producing more mindshare in our distributors and better visibility abroad.
What’s next for Kepware?
To date, we have primarily focused on device-level communications. Unfortunately, there is not a single standard interface for exchanging information between every application or system within an organization. Different industries create their own standards (so power systems are not able to communicate with building lighting or HVAC); large vendors create their own proprietary, but documented interfaces. Depending on what layer you are working with, the enterprise (ERP), business (MES), control (HMI/SCADA); each has its own sets of interfaces. It is unrealistic that everyone in the world will adopt a single language for exchanging information anytime soon, and Kepware sees an opportunity to tie into different systems across the different layers, different vendor- specific applications and different industry specific interfaces. As such, Kepware will invest in adding additional adapters that will provide data to a much wider set of applications.
How did UMaine prepare you for your career?
UMaine and, in particular, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), provided me with a solid set of skills to enter the workforce. The ECE curriculum was very challenging and provided an escalating challenge of courses and associated problems throughout my four years. Each challenge pushed me to stretch my mind — from investigation and research, to trial and error and, at the end of the day, learning how to learn. I also think there was a special mindset with studying in Orono — kind of a “we are from the sticks and we need to do it better than everyone else.” I saw this with the faculty and classmates from all over the state. I came out of UMaine striving for excellence — something I still hold on to on a daily basis and will continue to do so throughout my career, as it has pushed me to achieve things I never would have imagined over 20 years ago.
Image Description: Tony Paine