Watch Your Mouth

Did We Truly Need to Replace Programmable Logic Controllers with Programmable Automation Controllers? Why Not Just Call Them Computers and Leave It at That?

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By Jim Montague, executive Editor

I probably shouldn’t be saying this. Words are inadequate. Whether spoken or printed, they often fall short of describing even basic facts, experiences and situations. I’ve found verbal shortcomings in all of the human endeavors I’ve reported on and written about over the years, including the many technologies and systems related to control and automation. Even simple labels don’t fully describe what they’re supposed to cover. And, whether they’re applied incorrectly by accident or with the intent of deceiving, the resulting damage is the same—miscommunication and undiminished ignorance.

For example, I’ve waited years to learn the difference between pressure transmitters and pressure transducers, and I’m still waiting. Sometimes they’re the same. Sometimes they’re different. Sometimes someone starts taking about transceivers. It seems to depend on who you ask and/or where they’re from.

Besides the confusion that inaccuracy perpetuates, even accurate terms established and enshrined for too long can become calcified and enable prejudices, and so stifle creative thinking and innovation. For instance, is there anything really personal about personal computers (PCs) anymore? The old stand-alone desktop has been followed by laptops that are so generic and thoroughly tied to the Internet and other networks that the “personal” prefix seems hopelessly outdated. Likewise, “distributed control system” (DCS) is an equally antique label because it still implies that the system is distributed outward from a central location, rather than pulsing in the wired and wireless networks now blanketing most factories.

Likewise, why are industrial networks managing I/O points on the plant floor called “low level,” while those coming from management and accounting are “high level?” Sounds like someone left the org chart upside down again. Because actual production is a manufacturer’s most important job, I think device-level networks should be highest, and administration should be assigned to the low, support area, which is more line with the value it actually brings to most organizations. See, revised language can lead to new thinking.

However, not just any new moniker will do. Did we truly need to replace programmable logic controllers with programmable automation controllers? Why not just call them computers? Or would this be too much like the commodity Cat 5 cable I can buy at Home Depot for next to nothing? This is similar to the high price of adjectives on many restaurant menus and supermarket fliers. For example, root vegetables and field greens always seem to cost more than carrots and lettuce. Hydroponics aside, can salad greens ever be non-field?     
So what’s to be done? Well, I’ve often been told to think before speaking, and, especially in covering this technical arena, I also have to do lot of thinking before writing. With varying success, I try to be accurate first, and this pushes me to be conceptually inclusive and appreciate my potential audience’s differing expertise and understanding.

Consequently, I’d keep an eye peeled for arbitrary, unspecific, fuzzy descriptions that may be restricting your understanding of a given situation or problem and/or unnecessarily limiting your search for useful solutions. Every engineer knows how crucial precise calculations are, but precise language is almost as important. The classic manual for writing precisely is William Strunk Jr.’s original Elements of Style, found online at www.bartleby.com/141/.   

Look at verbal descriptions as a beginning, not an end. A written account should be the start of further inquiries by readers, not the end. For some reason, people assume words are in set in stone, when the changeable reality they reflect should mean they’re inscribed in sand or vanilla pudding. Maybe it was all those clay tablets, chiseling and scarce parchment we used to use. Paper and electrons and photons are way more flexible, but that flexibility still needs to serve the truth.

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