Is automation in your future?

Is automation really a profession? As HMIs and historians fade into the fabric of manufacturing, what has automation done for us lately? Executive Editor Jim Montague muses in this month’s Control Report.

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Jim Montague, Executive EditorBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

One of the old Twilight Zone episodes shows character actor Richard Deacon methodically replacing his factory’s workers with robots, until the last scene when he’s replaced by Robby the Robot from the movie Forbidden Planet. This is an old, familiar fear, but for many process control engineers it finally may be approaching reality.

Certainly, there are still the usual layoffs and outsourcings to Asia, where degreed engineers reportedly will work for one-tenth of the typical salaries in the U.S. and Europe. Our economic bones will bleach long before this wage tsunami settles between the hemispheres. Cheerleading free-market capitalism is easy until Adam Smith’s invisible hand bites you in the form of someone who can compete far better because they’re willing to work for far less. (For more on this issue, check out Frontline’s "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" documentary on its website at www.pbs.org.)

Of course, the ongoing brain drain in process control has just as much to do with its collectively aging population as it does with Asian competition. Few would dispute that the U.S. isn’t training as many engineers as are retiring.

However, there’s a third reason why traditional process control may be drying up as a viable profession. It simply may have succeeded too well. The evolution from PLCs to software and PC-based control, and on through fieldbuses, Ethernet, and wireless to Internet-based monitoring and eventually control seems unstoppable.

In fact, many areas of control are overlapping so much that it’s increasingly hard to tell them apart. The boundaries between process control’s separate technical silos have been blurring for years, but many technologies now seem to be simply plopping down on top of each other.

One recent story, "Industrial PCs Taking on New Forms for New Jobs," Control, July ’06, reported that industrial PCs aren’t limited to screens, keyboards, enclosures, or even on the usual circuit boards and cards anymore. They can run on DIN rails, in Ethernet switches, in connectors, on chips, while advances in low-power operations and Compact Flash data storage allow them to function in remote settings over wide temperature ranges. In short, they can do most if not all the jobs of PLCs and other devices.

Likewise, the data acquisition (DAQ) story in the Control Sept. ’06 issue found that DAQ systems are being pulled along in the same gravity well of the PC-and-software steamroller. Similar to most control and networking components, DAQ devices also are getting ever smaller and faster, replicating DCS function, adding Ethernet and USB ports, and serving web pages.

All of the once-diverse black boxes in process control are getting pretty homogenous. Every gallon of milk looks pretty much the same, too.

Generic or not, however, their ever-growing computing power is undeniable. Pretty soon, all that your intelligent, field-mounted computing modules are going to say to you is, "Don’t call us. We’ll call you." Thanks a lot, Robby, you #%&*!

Process control engineers may be similar to medical researchers and fire chiefs, who sometimes say their jobs are to put themselves out of business by finding cures or solutions. Unfortunately, the engineers may have found these career-ending solutions.

So, what are you going to do? Get outraged, stoic, and bitter? It’s a mighty popular, macho strategy. You just need enough savings and false pride to wallow in.

Personally, I’ve never had enough ready cash to afford any unpaid days off. My dad had two employers in the first 20 years of his career. I’m on number 10 after two decades, and I swear only a couple of them were even remotely my fault. So, I reflexively read the want ads before the comics on Sundays, and take comfort in the fact that I can send out 40 letters and resumes a week if needed, and that dried beans and rice never seem to go above about $1 per pound. The only things that really scare me are my mortgage and the college tuitions I’ll be paying in a few years.

I don’t like change either, and I’m not alone, which is why every new invention and process is viewed with suspicion. Man, that [great invention of your choice here] will never work! Then, the world changes, and you have to decide how to respond. The whole process control field isn’t much more than two or three generations old anyway. Maybe the software and PCs are just the revenge of the relays and solenoids on the PLCs.

So, get up, get out, network with some motivated colleagues, go back to school—again, get some new skills, and breathe some free air out on the hunt. Finding an occupation is easier than finding a wooly mammoth. You’re only obsolete if you choose to be.

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