The changing face of automation engineering

CONTROL looks at lights-out plants, online as-builts, remote asset management, and all the other things that will be necessary to make up for the lack of trained automation professionals in the next 20 years.

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Automation EngineeringBy Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief



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We’ve been saying for some time now that the light process control engineers are seeing at the end of the tunnel is the headlamp of an oncoming train. It’s still coming, and it’s picking up speed.

Converging trends that will converge in the next decade or so will utterly change the way process automation is done. Whether you’re simply a process automation professional, or a system integrator, or a vendor, you’ll need to understand these trends and adopt new stances, or the train will make you as flat as a penny laid on the track. There are big changes ahead that aren’t just technical, but are economical and political, as well as social and demographic.

Big Changes Will Alter How We Work!
These changes will come at you from every possible vector—social, economic, political and technical. They will not only alter the way we work, but will affect what we’ll have to know to work in process automation, and maybe even where we’ll have to live, and for whom we may be working.

Best, Brightest Stay Away from Manufacturing
Most control and automation professionals are Baby Boomers. ISA’s membership data shows the average age of its members was 45 in 2000. It’s logical they’re now older than 50 and getting older on average. When we were growing up, it was a great future to work in manufacturing. However, since the late 1960s, it hasn’t been as cool to work in a factory or process plant. The best we have are working in IT, law, banking, and e-commerce—anything to avoid getting dirty in a plant. If it means getting grubby, even the engineers and scientists we’re importing from Eastern Europe, India, and China are unwilling to really pile in, and get the job done.

Factory work is no longer considered a safe career path for anybody. And everybody who was a little kid growing up in the 1980s and 90s is well aware of what happened when dad and mom gave their loyalty to the company—they got laid off, their pensions got stolen, and they had to go back to work doing stuff that paid them much less than they expected, such as being a greeter at Wal-Mart. Furthermore, many of original jobs disappeared overseas as companies locked into short term economic thinking, and pursued labor and regulatory savings in India, China, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

The layoffs of the 1980 and-90s also disposed of many of the people who knew how to run process plants manually. A lot of them had been operating process plants when all of the operations were manual—look at this gauge, turn this valve one quarter turn. They were the people whose calibrated eyeballs could do a sweep of the control room’s “control wall” instrumentation, and get a clear picture of the plant’s operating state. They were the people who helped translate manual operations into closed loops, and turn closed loops into distributed process control systems. To a great extent, these professionals are gone from manufacturing facilities in North America and Western Europe. And, here’s something nobody thinks about, these types of experts mostly never existed in the Third World because, by the time we started building plants there, these facilities were modern automated plants.


  Walt Boyes

CONTROL Editor in Chief Walt Boyes asks his audience at this year's Honeywell Users Group Symposium to imagine manufacuring after all the Boomers retire.

Those who are left are retiring in droves. The ones that escaped the cost-cutting axes of the last 25 years are now retiring faster than they can be replaced. “My institutional knowledge walks out of the plant every day at 4 p.m.,” say many plant managers. Well, every afternoon, some of that collective expertise walks out, and never comes back! So much has been lost that many process plants have completely lost the chain of knowledge handed down from older to younger employees. The remaining staff simply doesn’t know why the plant is operating the way it does, or why certain things are done, and others are not done.


And the institutional knowledge that older engineers are taking is irreplaceable. For example, in many plants, when multiple alarms go off together, many operators no longer know which are the most critical and which to respond to first. And, in alarm cascades, plant operators that don’t know those things are usually going to do something wrong. We’ve seen this many times in many accidents such as the BP Texas City incidents in 2005.

Process industry companies often are unable to hire even strategically. Just as the process industry companies are beginning to realize exactly what they did to themselves in the 1980s and 90s as a result of layoffs, offshoring, and other screw-jobs, they’re running smack into the post-Boomer demographics. While Boomers were the largest generation in history, those that followed are much smaller, and there simply aren’t enough younger workers to fill all the remaining jobs. Many of these jobs were absorbed by process automation in the late 1980s and 90s, but the important jobs, those requiring institutional knowledge, are going begging. Companies used to have mentorship and training programs to bring younger workers up to speed with the institutional knowledge of their more senior co-workers, but those programs are typically gone now. Even bringing in workers from offshore isn’t enough.

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