From the 1980s and 1990s forward, suppliers discovered that the hardware market was shrinking, commoditizing, and becoming saturated. Larger suppliers found themselves competing with second tier suppliers, including some whose “DCS” emulation software ran completely on COTS products, like Wonderware, Iconics, Citect and others. The key large suppliers began to make the transition to a software and value-added service business model.
Just as it became apparent that the simple application of automation to manufacturing processes was not delivering the return on investment that it once did, suppliers began to offer new applications such as production management, model-based control, real-time optimization, plant asset management and real time performance management tools such as alarm management, predictive maintenance, and many others. In addition, suppliers began to offer the consulting services necessary to make all these new applications work.f
In the 2000s, we’ve seen a dramatic shift from system-centric and technology oriented approaches to a business-centric approach. Users now look at the overall business value proposition, with elements such as asset utilization, return on assets, and increased plant performance coming to the forefront. Technology for technology’s sake is no longer an effective argument for justification of automation products. Again, the control engineer is being dragged into the world of manufacturing.What Time Is On Your Watch?
You can think of what has happened to our profession this way: In the early days, we were all concerned with how to build the watch. Knowing how to build the watch was critical to success.
Later, it became imperative to also know how to tell time. So your skill set expanded. Later yet, we realized that it wasn’t enough to be able to know how to build the watch and tell time. Now we needed to know what the benefits of being on time were, and the consequences of being late. So the skill set expanded once again.
That is where lots of process automation professionals are: we know how sensors work, we know how loops work, and we know how to control a process.
Unfortunately, the required skill set has expanded once again. Now it isn’t enough to be able to build the watch, tell time, know what happens when you’re late, and why you should be on time. Now we have to be experts on scheduling, because everything below that has become transparent.
Our primary value now is seeing to it that information from the plant is transmitted to the enterprise. You see, what has happened to process automation is that it is now working in fourth order concepts. Many of you aren’t there yet, and some of the new technologies aren’t quite there yet either. If you don’t get there, and soon, that train will flatten you like a penny on the track.Disruptive Technologies R Us
We cover these disruptive technologies regularly, so we will just list them here:
- Collaborative engineering
- Integrated simulation and design/draw software
- Remote server applications, XML, B2MML and web services
- HMI and human factors engineering
- Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) technologies like RFID
- Robust wireless systems for monitoring and control
- Mobile computing
- More and better online analysis systems
- Smart sensors and final control elements
- Real-time performance management
- Real-time asset management
Looking a great deal like George Jetson’s control room, this is a three-dimensional display currently working in an ExxonMobil facility. Source: 3D-Perception AS
Taken together, these disruptive technologies paint a detailed picture of what tomorrow’s plant will be. Designed in close collaboration between the process engineer and the control engineer, the plant processes will first have been simulated (see Sidebar below),
then the simulation data will have been exported to the plant design software and the control design software. Using AIDC and real-time asset management techniques, the plant will have “live-as-builts” that are continuously updated for maintenance and management. This will be true of both “brownfield” and “greenfield” plants, since any older plants that haven’t been upgraded to this level of control will have been abandoned.
The operator will be a supervisor most of the time, reacting to upset of the control system and the plant process (See Figure 1).
Ian Nimmo, human factors guru and president of User Centered Design Services LLC, says, “In a properly run plant, the operator should not have to intervene in the plant operation except in the case of an upset, and any time the operator has to do anything, it is
an upset.”What Should You Know, and When Should You Know It?
Not only is there a shortage of competent process automation professionals, both in the end user ranks and in the ranks of vendors and vendor service groups as Dave Beckman pointed out, there is a significant need for advanced process automation training. WBF, ISA and other organizations have highly developed training courses aimed directly at the process automation professional, many covering the disruptive technologies we’ve identified. Yet, as our July Control Poll
indicates, over 45% of you won’t pay for training that your employer doesn’t provide. It isn’t a good bet that more training facilities will become available if this trend continues. And it is
a good bet that, if you don’t get training on these new trends, you will be out on your ear, regardless of the shortage.