Rob Blackburn: A Visionary in the Realm of Automation and Electrical Engineering

Rob Blackburn

Rob Blackburn, CEO, Motherwell Automation

“The only constant is change.” These profound words by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus hold immense relevance in today’s fast-paced world. In an era where technology and market dynamics are in a constant state of flux, organizations find themselves grappling with a myriad of challenges. Successfully manoeuvring through this complexity requires leaders who can not only grasp the bigger picture but also possess a deep understanding of the nuances within the industry. Alongside traditional management skills, they must have the ability to comprehend customer needs, effectively utilize technology to provide superior solutions and make a significant impact on the lives of others. Embodying such traits with remarkable prowess, Rob Blackburn, the CEO of Motherwell Automation, stands as a paragon of dedicated leadership in the realm of automation and electrical engineering.

A Journey Fuelled by Passion and Experience

Rob’s fascination with automation and electrical engineering began during his childhood. Growing up, Rob’s father would often bring new electrical instrumentation and equipment home to work on, encouraging his budding interest. These experiences laid the groundwork for Rob’s deep-rooted passion for the field. Initially, he focused on domestic control systems like X10 electrical wiring and then progressed to more advanced systems such as Crestron and AMX within building management. His proficiency in networking, particularly in Cisco Systems, opened doors to the industrial automation industry and led his path to join Motherwell Automation, where he began honing his skills in industrial communication networking.

Rob commenced his career in AV design and building controls before his first stint with Motherwell in 2004, where he wholeheartedly pursued industrial process control. As his expertise grew, he ventured into roles such as a Systems Solutions Engineer at Emerson Process Control and later as a Senior Account Manager at Honeywell. His remarkable ascent continued, and he was soon promoted to the prestigious position of Regional Sales Manager before taking on the pivotal role of Regional Business Director, with responsibilities across the Pacific and South-East Asia. Today, as the CEO of Motherwell Automation, Rob brings a wealth of over two decades of industrial automation and control experience across a diverse range of industries, including mining, oil and gas, renewable, and utilities.

Transforming Industries with Cutting-Edge Automation Solutions

With an illustrious history that dates back to 1984, Motherwell Automation began its journey by delivering state-of-the-art control and management systems for the Albany Grain Export Terminal, a landmark project in Western Australia. The company’s influence continued to expand as it took on significant upgrades for grain export terminals across Western Australia, as well as the Grain Handling Authority of NSW and Bulk Grains Queensland at the Gladstone Grain Terminal. During the mid-80s, Motherwell Automation’s prowess in the field was further solidified when it became the exclusive distributor of GE Fanuc Process Control System Hardware and Software products throughout Australia.

This milestone led to the establishment of its offices in Melbourne and Sydney, paving the way for the company’s expansion into dedicated departments for Bulk Handling, Oil & Gas, Utilities, Water & Wastewater, alongside its core product distribution business. In 2000, Motherwell Automation was acquired by Jon Swire-Thompson and continues to trade under the Motherwell Automation name to this day. In 2006, Motherwell Automation earned the position of Systems Integrator for Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), a venture that paved the way for the establishment of an iron ore enterprise in Western Australia. Since then, Motherwell Automation has been at the forefront, providing an array of services including control system design, implementation, integration, testing, commissioning, and ongoing support to all FMG sites in the Pilbara region. Another notable milestone in Motherwell Automation’s journey came in 2011 when they were appointed as the Systems Integrator for Karara Mining, a prominent player in the iron ore magnetite sector. This collaboration led to the development of a state-of-the-art facility comprising a mine site, a processing plant, and an export terminal.

Today, Motherwell Automation proudly possesses a robust engineering capability across a wide range of industries, continuing to distribute and support top-quality products from reputable manufacturers such as Honeywell, Telepresenz, Maiwe, and many others. As the company celebrates its 23rd anniversary as an Australian owned and operated business, it remains committed to delivering excellence in automation engineering services and electrical automation equipment sales, propelling the growth and success of industries throughout Australia.

Developing Practical Solutions to Real-World Problems

Besides a clear vision and strategic acumen, what truly sets Rob apart from the rest is his unique perspective on innovation. For Rob, innovation is not merely about embracing technology for its own sake, but rather about addressing challenges and developing practical solutions to real-world problems. “My passion for innovation is driven by the desire to remove the bottlenecks which constrain our ability to grow,” opines Rob.

Driven by this innovative mindset, Motherwell Automation takes a hands-on approach, working closely with industry players to gain firsthand insight into operational difficulties. “Essentially, the drive is not to develop technology for the advancement of the technology landscape but to seek solutions to real problems using technology as an enabler. Motherwell has the enviable position of being both an engineering firm provided with access to real issues and the key distribution partner for leading global suppliers. Working with global suppliers we have an opportunity to share in global success stories and bring that back into our local markets,” adds Rob.

Before embracing new technologies, Motherwell ensures that they meet the stringent requirements of the industrial market. All its systems must meet environmental conditioning requirements, have proven reliability and are also cyber secure. While developing a technology solution, it deploys the technology using its in-house FAT rooms, and technology center. There, the Motherwell OT Cyber Security team focus on how to break it while the controls engineers focus on how to implement it with the highest levels of redundancy and availability. This comprehensive approach ensures that their systems not only meet but exceed expectations, solidifying Motherwell’s expertise in ongoing support and maintenance.

Cultivating a Culture of Support, Collaboration, and Shared Success

Rob understands that the true strength of the company lies in its people. “I believe that investing in people, investing in their careers, and their fulfilment is the key to a successful culture, and it creates a ripple effect throughout the entire business,” affirms Rob. To achieve this, Rob focuses on getting them personally engaged in the success of the business by instilling trust and providing the independence to discover and learn across the business.

Motherwell Automation fosters a culture where everyone’s opinions matter, promoting open communication and participation. They have a flat management style that values every individual’s voice, whether it’s during company meetings, through suggestion tools, or even casual chats by the coffee machine. It is this culture of support, collaboration, and shared success that sets Motherwell Automation apart.

Pivoting through Challenges

Of course, no journey is without its challenges, and Motherwell Automation faced a significant hurdle during the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions prevented them from sending multiple experts to client sites. “In many cases that meant that we could deploy only a single engineer to the site to perform the task of three or more experts. The challenge was that each engineer that would normally be sent is an expert in his field, so to try and get a single engineer to cover multiple disciplines presented a real issue,” elucidates Rob.

To address this issue, Rob and his team turned to technology, exploring the use of mobile phones to assist remote field engineers. However, safety concerns arose as engineers’ hands were occupied. Through global connections, Motherwell partnered with an international supplier that provided wearable mobile devices that integrated with personal protective equipment (PPE), addressing safety issues. Coincidentally, the supplier had recently teamed up with Microsoft, enabling the integration of Teams into the wearables. This solution was trialled successfully, and clients, impressed by its deployment, invested in the system for their own teams. While initially confident in solving the challenge of remote engineering, Rob soon discovered another obstacle when he personally used the system—it lacked the necessary support applications. However, through the dedicated work of the engineering team, a comprehensive solution was developed in conjunction with Telepresenz, revolutionizing their operations and transforming client support.

Aspire to be the Industrial Automation Partner of choice

Reflecting on his journey, Rob shares valuable advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, urging them to understand the challenges they face and delve deeper to uncover the underlying issues. While it may be tempting to be driven solely by the allure of technology, Rob suggests a more fruitful approach of genuinely helping others in overcoming their challenges, thereby ensuring sustainable success. Passion is a key ingredient, according to Rob. “Be passionate about what you are doing. I love going to work, seeing the team, being involved. I am just as passionate about getting the warehouse sorted as I am about getting the accounts managed. We spend a significant amount of time working, so love what you do,” he asserts.

Looking toward the future, Rob envisions significant growth for Motherwell Automation. He aspires to establish national offices and support them with own branded proprietary technologies. Describing Motherwell Automation as a life-cycle partner, he emphasizes their commitment to being involved from the earliest stages of project feasibility, scope definition, and budgeting, all the way through to design, implementation, and ongoing support. Ultimately, Rob’s vision for Motherwell Automation is to position it as the indisputable Industrial Automation Partner of choice for businesses seeking end-to-end support throughout their projects and operations.