Automation Professionals Need New Set of Skills

Control magazine’s Walt Boyes discussed the need for process automation professionals to demonstrate the benefits they bring to their organizations.

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“We are in demand. We are scarce,” Walt Boyes, Control magazine editor-in-chief, said in his keynote address to the Process Solutions User Group at Rockwell Automation’s Automation Fair this week in Chicago. “And we now have the tools to prove that we are not only necessary, but irreplaceable.”

Boyes walked his audience through the changes, professional, social and political, that automation professionals have been through in the past twenty years, and then predicted what they will face in the coming decades.

“In October, he reported, “a large majority of the ISA Council of Society Delegates voted to rename the society the International Society for Automation, but not with the required supermajority, by less than one percent. The measure failed. Nothing could better illustrate the pains of a changing profession.”

“We have a larger, deeper skill set that we need to learn than any other discipline.” Control magazine’s Walt Boyes discussed the need for process automation professionals to demonstrate the benefits they bring to their organizations.
He went on to discuss coming trends. “A few years ago,” he said, “we published a story called, ‘The Light at the End of the Tunnel Is a Train.’ There are trends that are converging in the next decade or so that will utterly change the way process automation is done. Whether you are simply a process automation professional, or a system integrator, or a vendor, you need to understand these trends and adopt new stances, or the train will make you as flat as a penny laid on the track.” Boyes continued, “And if you do understand them, you can prosper in your career as never before.”

Manufacturing hasn’t been a classy or hip place to work, Boyes pointed out, since the layoffs and downsizings began in the 1980s. Yet every bit of productivity gained in the past twenty years is due to the benefits of automation and enterprise integration. Yet the people who gained that productivity increase are older and getting ready to retire, without clear and well trained successors.

“But since training and mentoring and apprenticeships cost money, and the process industries are very cost conscious still,” Boyes pointed out, “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 call with staffing services, operating and maintenance services, and design expertise—some of the people laid off by the process industries found new homes in the vendor community, and took their expertise there.

“Vendors are very clear that it is better to have somebody pay them once a month for doing stuff than 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 requested to do the design engineering and even the integration for them.”

“The problem, of course,” Boyes continued, “is that the vendor companies are having the same staffing problems that the process industries themselves are.”

What to do about this? “Imagine what would happen if all of us walked off our jobs for 60 days…but we don’t have to do that. What we must do is to stop thinking like instrument engineers, like control systems people, and start thinking like real automation professionals.

“We have a larger, deeper skill set that we need to learn than any other discipline,” Boyes concluded. “It isn’t enough to be an engineer…in fact, many automation professionals aren’t engineers. We must be able to engineer, to plan, to manage projects, to understand both financial analysis and have experience with many kinds of processes in many different industries. In a way, we’re like Ginger Rogers. She could do everything Fred Astaire could do—and she did it backwards, and in high heels. So let’s dance!”

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