Animated Automation

It was supposed to be a temporary name: "Wonderware." Founder Dennis R. Morin typed it into his company's incorporation documents in 1987 when he couldn't think of something catchy that included "integrated" or "micro." Now, with Wonderware Corp.'s cartoon-like logo emblazoned on a building in an otherwise anonymous industrial park in Irvine, Calif., the company still seems a little light-hearted. Indeed, more serious competitors' ads sneer at Wonderware's "fun-to-use" software.

Wonderware is no joke, though. It's a serious player in the mushrooming market for industrial-automation software, and No.38 on BUSINESS WEEK's Hot Growth list. College dropout Morin started Wonderware when he was laid off from his umpteenth job, the last one designing software. "I'd never been promoted; I'd never held a management position," he says. "I decided that the only way to get to the top of the corporate ladder was to start there."

PINBALL WIZARD. Morin's inspiration came from an early computer game called Pinball Construction Set. Players could design their own pinball machines by placing flippers and bumpers where they wanted. Morin wondered: Why not build the same flexibility into the engineering software used to control valves and temperature gauges in factories?

That insight led to the creation of Wonderware's InTouch industrial-automation software. While other industrial software required each machine to have its own display panel and individual controls, InTouch allows engineers to "watch" the workings of the entire factory through on-screen animations that continually mimic what's going on. As they watch, engineers can change manufacturing processes instantly. Most important, InTouch works with every piece of equipment on the factory floor. So, like the pinball player who can move his on-screen flippers, InTouch users can quickly rejigger controls factorywide.

Other signs of InTouch's pinball parentage include software commands that let users add light touches to their screens, such as birds coursing their way over factory equipment. But don't mistake whimsy for lack of business savvy: By designing his InTouch system for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows instead of DOS, Morin gained a two-year lead on rivals. Fueled by its ability to run on off-the-shelf PCs, sales have zoomed. Revenues increased 67% last year, to $35.7 million, as profits doubled, to $7.6 million. For 1995's first quarter, net income rose 75%, to $2.6 million, on revenues up 62%.

Now, Morin, 49, aims to expand Wonderware at 60% per year, to a half-billion-dollar company within five years. "Our strategy is to supply all the software components you'll need to automate a factory," he says. More products are already in the pipeline, and Morin is also busy working on the corporate culture. "I like the idea that you can have fun while doing serious things," he says. This year, the cover of Wonderware's annual report featured an image of a cow stepping out of a computer screen, to illustrate how InTouch could control a mythical dairy-products company called WonderMoo. An excuse, perhaps, for the papier-mche cow that Morin just commissioned to adorn the lobby.