Oh the humanity!

In this installment of Control Report, Executive Editor Jim Montague finds the process control and automation field is awash in irony, unexpected twists and tragic comedies that would make O. Henry proud.

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Jim MontagueBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

PLEASE DON'T tell anyone, but my whole job is pretty simple: use concrete nouns and active verbs to continually answer one question: “What the heck is going on here?” Easy to describe, like saying, “Let’s run up that mountain.” Not so easy to do.

So, when I first started covering the control and automaton field close to 10 years ago, I was shaking in my shoes at the hundreds of industries, thousands of applications and apparently zillions of technologies I needed to learn and write about for an audience with a wide range of expertise. Yikes!

At first, reporting and editing didn’t seem to have much in common with process control, and, just my luck, this was the one human endeavor with more acronyms than U.S. healthcare, which I’d covered previously. However, my new colleagues, helpful sources, and a very patient  Dr. James Truchard and Mike Santori at National Instruments Week 97, clued me in that there are many solutions and applications, but only a few dozen basic technical goals concentrated around the sense-decide-act triangle. I later realized that sense-decide-act is essentially a reporting exercise. Go find out what going on, come back and pull out the useful nuggets, and let people know what changes may be needed.

Since then, I’ve found that process control and automation may seem scientifically and mathematically precise and unapproachable from far away, but up close they’re boiling with an all-too-human mix of inertia, inspiration, rigidity, creativity, fear, innovation, despair, and hope. These conflicting states may be hard for many accuracy-oriented engineers to reconcile, but they make a humanities-based person like me laugh, if only with recognition. Insecurity loves company, too. Sorry guys.

I’ve watched fieldbus supporters evangelize and convert new users with religious fervor, and I’ve seen reactionary 4-20 mA end users resist with the same stony dogmatism as the church leaders who prosecuted Galileo. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—no matter how much more efficient the repair is.

Finally, I’ve witnessed the ongoing squabbles between the many fieldbus denominations as they mugged and piled on the once potentially useful IEC 61158 standard, and then cooked up watered-down, me-too Ethernet versions when they couldn’t ignore their users any longer. Talk about “ignorant armies clashing by night.” (You can Google Matthew Arnold for the full version of his classic poem “Dover Beach.”) 

Similarly, process control is awash in irony, unexpected twists and tragic comedies that would make O. Henry or any comic book or screenwriter very proud. In one classic example, software was supposed to eliminate hardware in many settings, but the data processing capabilities of PCs and embedded computers made it possible for users to install more and more varied sensors and I/O hardware, and gather data from applications and processes where they couldn’t do it before. 

In addition, wireless technologies were supposed to replace cables, but, wireless installations have often meant more wiring and connectors on either end to serve their applications’ transmitters, antennas, and other equipment. 

While reporting this issue’s “Face Time” cover article, a steel-plant engineer and a system integrator at Matrikon’s recent end-user conference told me that disagreements over production units and reporting definitions often lead to inaccurate data that can’t improve any processes. They added that age and professional differences widen language and cultural chasms that keep young engineers from working effectively with their older counterparts, in the same way that many control engineers remain highly suspicious of their IT colleagues.

The cure? It’s some really nasty medicine. It’s just talking.Conversing regularly with coworkers, slowly chipping way at old organizational barriers, and then focusing on achieving agreements on procedures and processes that can truly improve their applications. Yuck! You try it first.

In the same article, for example, longtime system integrator Bob Zeigenfuse, reports his firm, Advanced Automation Associates, developed an educational program to teach engineers how to conduct interviews, serve as trusted advisers, and convince users to open up about what they really need.

So often, former employees start their own companies to get out from under crazy/stupid bosses, only to find they now have crazy/stupid clients. As Bob Dylan says, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” You can start by talking.

Process control is awash in irony, unexpected twists and tragic comedies that would make O. Henry proud.

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