A big grain of salt

Executive Editor Jim Montague warns us not to let frequently repeated misconceptions and outright lies about new technology get in the way of statistics, because they can serve almost any purpose.

Jim MontagueBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

DON"T BELIEVE everything you read. In fact, don’t believe most of what you read. Okay, perhaps it might be better to say take most of it with a large chunk of salt.

Most engineers, technical professionals and other educated people already know to be cautious of easy answers, free lunches, Nigerian get-rich-quick spam, incomplete and evasive bids and RFPs, and other forms of sunshine-pumping, especially in their areas of technical expertise.

However, such healthy skepticism often doesn’t seem to carry over to other parts of many peoples’ lives, such as health care, personal finances, politics and the budgets of their local taxing bodies. Maybe it’s because folks aren’t as well informed about these subjects, or maybe they’re too busy, stressed and tired to be skeptical. Either way, frequently repeated misconceptions and outright lies often get accepted as truth over time, at least until some drain backs up, and the problem explodes in enough faces. (Name your favorite domestic or international fiasco here.) 

I’ve always been surprised at how much extra weight and apparent credibility distortions and falsehoods take on when they appear in print. A printed or e-publication, an internal memo, or even an email seems to gain power and permanence when it enters the brain through the eyes instead of the ears. This is why responsible journalists seek to be as objective as possible. It’s also why so many people distrust and resent the media—because print so often seems to be written in stone, many readers fear they won’t get a fair shake when the spotlight turns to them. 

For the same reasons, it’s important to beware of statistics because they really can be used to serve almost any purpose. For example, a small municipality may have only one homicide one year and just two the next year, but an irresponsible publication might trumpet, “Murders Up 100%!” Eek! That’s technically accurate, but highly misleading, because the numbers aren’t accompanied by the historical context readers need to understand what’s truly happening.

CONTROL polled its readers in September on how they understand and use OPC technology, which is managed by the OPC Foundation. Half of the 128 respondents to this survey use distributed control systems (DCS) in their process applications, while almost 90% send measurement data, and two-thirds send computed values from their sensors and I/O points to their HMIs and enterprise systems. Two-thirds use OPC in their applications, while 15% already use OPC-unified architecture (OPC-UA). More than 20% report that they’re in the chemical and related products industries, while 15% are in food and beverage industries. About two-thirds say they’re control system designers and engineers, and close to half recommend, specify and buy controllers and control systems.    

Now, all of this data is very interesting. It looks like most OPC users have DCSs that send measurement data up from the plant floor, and a significant fraction use OPC-UA. All of this provides an accurate picture of the respondents’ experiences and demonstrates how fast OPC use is expanding.

Still, something is missing. Ironically, because answers lead to more questions, these results also point out what we don’t yet know about OPC, but may want to find out next. Because this was a first-time survey, it has no historical context to show how awareness and use of OPC is changing over the years. These results also didn’t analyze OPC use and presence according to each respondent’s industry, application type and/or job function. A more sophisticated analysis could help answer these new questions. These tools and subsequent results can give added depth, dimension and understanding about OPC’s emergence.

Ironically again, a little initial skepticism can help readers realize that published communications aren’t immutable, but are actually far more fluid than their formats make them appear. In fact, knowing that a printed update isn’t the last word, but is actually the beginning of further inquiries in an ongoing story, can create a little of the trust and tolerance that’s so rare these days.

And don’t worry about high blood pressure, of course, because this type of sodium is entirely metaphorical. Mmm! Critical thinking—always zero calories, usually free of charge and good for you. Tasty!

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