WHEN WALT Boyes, current editor-in-chief of Control, asked me to once again pen a regular column in this magazine, it was difficult not to think of Michael Corleone’s vain attempts to escape the underworld that had come to define him.
For me too, this writing marks a return to a world that I’d never really left. Long-time Control readers might remember my most recent columns as editor-in-chief, now some 10 years ago. During the intervening years, I’ve looked after the business side of this publishing pursuit, launched new magazines in other markets, and even briefly flirted with the competition.
But the world of process automation has always been my first love. It gets under your skin, and, as John Berra, now CEO of Emerson Process Management, once remarked to me: “There’s a relatively limited number of people who really care about this stuff.” Come to realize, I’m one of them.
The start of this new column, positioned as a final punctuation mark to the editorial pages of Control, seems a propitious opportunity to briefly benchmark the current state of our industry from my perspective, and to describe some of the trends and pressures I see driving it forward.
"Just when I thought that I was out,
Following the pattern of many maturing industries before us, I believe the manufacturing industry, as well as the supply side of the automation market, will continue to consolidate and stratify among an ever-smaller number of global multinationals and smaller niched and regional players. Including the historically discrete-oriented automation players, for instance, there now remain fewer than 10 global options at the platform/architecture level.
And, if history is any guide, that’s still too many. Think of the post-consolidation ERP market. Until rather recently, a panoply of best-of-breed companies focused on a variety of specialized tasks from demand forecasting to MRP. Today, best-of-breed at the ERP level has all but given way to the integrated offerings of SAP and a short list of rivals.
Further, when it comes to process automation, I believe the battle for platform dominance is poised to unfold not in process automation proper but around the tasks traditionally defined as part of the manufacturing execution space—the level of integration, control and coordination between ERP and plant-floor automation systems.
The fight for ERP is over, and any number of companies can do control. But the automation platform providers that will win the process industry’s allegiance in the longer term will be those that can finally and cost-effectively unify heterogeneous plant-floor control systems and, in turn, provide a means for maximizing economic productivity of manufacturing assets. Not temperatures or pressures, nor even utilization or availability metrics, the process industries need—and the winning platform suppliers will deliver—actionable measures of real-time economic performance. Nothing new here in principle, but feasibility may finally be poised to catch up with imagination.
Let me add that none of this systems focus is intended to minimize or understate the importance of ongoing innovation in the realm of field instrumentation. Wireless communications, for example, will make increasing numbers of measurements more cost-effective than ever before. But the ability to interpret and act on this new data based on its economic impact will be the ultimate differentiator.
Finally, any overview of the state of the process automation industry would be incomplete without acknowledging the graying of our ranks, especially in the U.S., as well as the overall decline of manufacturing both in terms of GDP and employment. Like farming before us, some of this is inevitable and a testament to the automation profession’s success in improving productivity. But, like farming, manufacturing must still be done—even if with fewer engineering resources. That means that the remaining engineering expertise needs to be better captured and retained, packaged and redistributed.
Ultimately, the means, opportunity and responsibility for capturing and leveraging that expertise will come to rest with our automation platform providers. Increasingly, we’ll rely on them to embed intelligence in field devices, package engineering expertise in the form of application software, and provide the means by which operating companies can capture and retain knowledge specifically germane to their operations.
As long as there is process manufacturing, the need for process automation will persist. But just how to best leverage the expertise of fewer process automation professionals over a broader array of manufacturing assets is the practical challenge—and opportunity.