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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Since training and mentoring and apprenticeships cost money, and the process industries still are very cost conscious, the first thing they’ve done is to turn to their automation vendors for help. And the automation vendors, having heard the siren’s call to move from being equipment companies to being service providers, are answering the industry’s plea with staffing services, operating and maintenance services, and design expertise. In fact, some of the people laid off by the process industries found new homes in the vendor community, and took their expertise there, too. Vendors know it’s better to have somebody pay them once a month for doing tasks than it is to have somebody pay them once in a while for a new piece of equipment. And, since many process plants don’t even have engineering talent, vendor companies are delighted to do the design engineering and even the integration for them.

The problem, of course, is that the vendor companies are having the same staffing problems that the process industries experienced. The unpopularity of manufacturing jobs, the economic and career uncertainty of the past generation, and the smaller demographics of younger workers in North America and Western Europe have created problems for the vendors’ grand plan to provide all this intellectual property and institutional knowledge as fee-based services.

Flattening World, Inescapable Data
Of course, that metaphorical train is still coming. As knowledge workers become more pervasive worldwide, and as sensor and control technology continue to improve, we can do vastly more with far fewer “gauge watchers” and “valve-handle-turners” than we’ve ever been able to do before.

The simple division of the world’s economies into First, Second and Third Worlds, or Developed versus Undeveloped, is coming unraveled. There are 250 million Indians, who live at the same standard of education, training, and income as in the U.S., and another 800 million people in India who live far below this level.

Everywhere you go in the world, you can see new tech coexisting with old tech and even ancient tech. Many underdeveloped countries are installing the latest technologies in process plants, just as they bypassed wired telephone systems in favor of cellular technology. So, while you can see a goatherd talking on a cellphone while herding his charges today, his son will be a process engineer tomorrow. We’re going to have to live in a increasingly connected and much smaller world.

Jobs are migrating, but people are not. Economic dislocation isn’t limited to North America and Western Europe. Even Korea and China are finding that it’s no longer possible to build some things there, and stay competitive on the global market. In 1905, more than half the U.S. population worked in agriculture. In 2005, less than 10% still does. Even though the population has greatly increased, there’s still a relatively low rate of unemployment. As jobs migrate, new jobs are created to fill the need. The tsunami of globalism is going all the way around the globe.

Changing Work Practices and Culture
For years, TLA consultants have been preaching Real-Time Control for business and processes. And, for years, captains of industry have been paying lip service to it. However, this change is finally upon us. Even SAP has come to the public realization that you can’t optimize your enterprise with just an automated balance sheet. With Microsoft and SAP supporting ISA95 and ISA88, it’s a sure bet that the Great Divide between the business systems and the plant floor will be erased by the end of the decade.

Even system integrators are changing, becoming more flexible, and moving into higher order integration. Companies like the multi-integrator Automation Alliance Group are creating new business models for expanding and providing services on a global basis, while remaining, in essence, local companies.

 

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Some firms also are changing how they treat employees. While companies in some industries still treat their human resources like completely replaceable commodities, such as steel and nuts and bolts, other firms are beginning to understand the value of knowledge workers. They’re realizing how much more profitably they can operate by giving workers more control over their jobs, and by decentralizing decision making to the lowest possible level. In process automation, this means that the newest plant operator or technician will need to know much of what instrument engineers knew in the 1980s. To attract and keep qualified people in a job market that will be a perennial seller’s market for at least the next generation, companies will have to offer benefits and perks like they used to in the 1950s.

 

Game-Changing, Global Economies
Vendor and process companies alike have already figured out what it means to “think globally, and act locally.”

Phoenix Contact, for example, has essentially split its entire company into three equal locations: Germany, U.S., and China. The company’s G&A, R&D, and manufacturing will all be split, with many tasks done at each location because now they’ll be able to work 24/7. Phoenix’s people even joked about it: “The sun will never set on our TransNational company!”

Invensys, ABB, Honeywell, Siemens, all the major vendors are doing much the same thing. Yokogawa is so serious about proving that it’s not just a Japanese company that it has relocated its entire international division to Singapore, and sent one of its chairman’s key lieutenants to run it.

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