After an absence of several years, suppliers are refocusing on the water, wastewater and utilities spaces. Companies all over North America are replacing, upgrading and repairing infrastructure that was built in the 1970s and 1980s and migrating to new control systems, data historians and entire existing systems (see the article “Water Works” on p. 52 of this issue).
They’ll Come Back!
High energy prices will continue to bolster the oil-and-gas sector and refining. While $3.00 per gallon gasoline is certain to return in the coming months because demand globally and in North America continues to outstrip supply. Biofuels and alternative energy will provide additional revenue for automation suppliers and jobs for automation professionals. And wonder of wonders, the nuclear power generation industry has gotten off its deathbed. Several new projects are either in the planning or permitting stage in North America for the first time in nearly thirty years.
The big cloud on the horizon is the consistent prediction by many financial analysts of a recession, possibly a deep one, beginning in 2008. Some analysts are predicting that this may last two to three years, depending on the geopolitical situation, among other factors. The current economic rising tide has lifted all the automation suppliers, but a prolonged recession may show us whose boats are leaky and whose are not.
You Mean We Have to Justify This?
Manufacturing automation systems gradually have been integrated into business systems for some time now. Automation purchase criteria are increasingly driven by business value propositions and the projected impact on bottom-line growth. Touting expected automatic productivity or growth gains to justify new or upgraded systems is not enough. Now the suits want to see how automation plans mesh with overall corporate goals.
We are seeing a fundamental change in the theory of tuning systems and plants.
From the earliest days of automation, control loops and machine cycles have been continuously optimized—the goal is to get each loop or each machine cycle to perform to at its best. Unfortunately, at the ERP and MES layers, it may be necessary to de-tune a plant or a process train or manufacturing line to bring the output in line with the overarching goals of the enterprise. This has taken some automation professionals and even some supplier companies by surprise. The idea that downtuning may be a desirable goal is still taking some time to sink in.
The Wireless Cloud: Standards Sorta
With asset availability overtaking loop performance as one of the most important issues in automation, it has not escaped anybody’s notice that there are already over 20 million devices installed with HART communications onboard. This is why more than 20 companies displayed prototype HART wireless devices, including wireless upgrade kits for existing HART transmitters, while those same companies and others are in a knife fight over ISA’s attempt to create a single industrial wireless standard, SP100. Depending on which side of that battle you’re on, you either see the existing HART installed base as “low-hanging fruit” or a real opportunity to open up the number of sensors and the amount of data from existing sensors that plant operators can access and use to make decisions on how best to run their plants.
Whether the rest of the wireless cloud—plant security, wireless workers, RFID, geolocation—will be integrated seamlessly into the plant control systems is still in doubt. In fact, some senior end-user engineers have privately expressed doubt that it will happen or that it is even necessary.
And It Just Keeps Going…
The comeback of North American manufacturing after predictions of its demise shows the underlying strength of the NA market. Analysts estimate it will continue to be the largest in the world for at least another 15 years, while China and India take over places two and three, respectively. T
his means that, now that the offshoring and outsourcing trends have burned out over the twin issues of supply-chain unreliability and increasing cost, we can expect a robust North American manufacturing scene for the next few years and, correspondingly, a healthy and growing automation industry.