|Read February's 2008 cover story, Process Automation Hall of Fame.|
Also, listen to Walt Boyes talking to the 2008 inductees to the Process Automation Hall of Fame.
Trevathan Speaks His Mind
I see six primary trends in the future of automation:
- Technology advances. Automation technology is advancing at a faster rate today than in the past: digital communications in the control room and in the field; wireless; better control algorithms and the computing capability to implement them; better transmitters for more and more types of variables; batch management; alarm management; better process models and the computing power to implement them even in real time; safety requirements; security; better operator interfaces; better operator training; improved maintenance tools and practices; information integration with business systems, and many more. There is no one area that stands out to me, but the sum of all this is very powerful force for getting more benefits from automation.
- Focus on project benefits. There is increasing focus on getting real benefits from projects. Or stated another way, there is better analysis of the opportunities in the operation for improved benefits from controland the coupling of those opportunities to new control functions. That is not to say that without this strong a focus in the past we have implemented a lot of control projects that did not have benefits; my experience is that most control projects do have benefits, though without careful planning maybe not as many and not where you expect. However, as the project focuses more on the benefits, engineers are much more likely to design the project to deliver the greatest benefits; and the benefits you get will be much greater.
- Improved emphasis on project management tools and training. The state of project management capability has advanced significantly due to efforts of the Independent Project Analysis (IPA) Institute, the Construction Industry Institute (CII), and the Project Management Institute (PMI). The primary theme of these efforts is the concept of doing a thorough conceptual design before beginning detail designand then not changing any morethat is, a design freeze. In automation, the shift from work from being led by end users with contractors working on a cost-plus basis to lump sum work led by contractors with tight cost parameters is bringing more attention to the need for good project management and delivering better, lower-cost projects.
- Convergence of IT and automation. In general this trend is good, because it brings together the knowledge of the process and how to control it with the information, communication and presentation tools of IT. However, this IT focus can cause us to think of automation as just another programming task. Automation is not just about computer programming, and if the automation professional does not understand the process, control, information and operator needs and the technologies for dealing with them, we will solve the wrong problem.
- Increasing shortages of well-trained people entering the automation field. We know about the shortage of engineers in general, but the shortage of people entering automation is even more severe. In the U.S., making this better is critical to manufacturing competitiveness. This has been identified as a major focus area for ISA.
The need is to educate the thousands of new B.S. engineers needed each year in automation. While one or two good courses in control help, a new graduate entering automation really needs a number of automation courses replacing selected courses in conventional electrical or chemical engineering curricula.
That is to say, we need a real automation engineering curriculum. This would include courses that cover the critical areas of the full automation body of knowledge: instrumentation, control loop design, advanced control, discrete control, safety, visualization, industrial communications, security, database management, business system integration, and more. Controller tuning, the subject often emphasized in process control courses, is actually less important and detracts from coverage of more important material.
- Increasing gap between the knowledge level of automation professionals and the technology. My observation is that most automation professionals are not keeping up with the advances in technology and in project tools. Most of us do not read the magazines we receive, do not listen to web seminars, do not read standards, and do not attend technical presentations. We get serious about training only for the devices we are assigned to program and do not understand the control task as well as we should. We take little responsibility for our own development; rather we want to leave it up to the company to educate us. We seem satisfied that thousands attend formal courses, become certified, attend technical meetings and participate in online discussion groups; but we forget about the tens of thousands who do very little of these things and who are struggling to do automation work without the necessary knowledge.
Automation is a great field for anyone interested in a technical career. Automation offers an unbeatable opportunity to grow and advance as fast as you are motivated to do so, to work for companies ranging from very small to very largeeven to start your own company, to move easily from theoretical to application work, hardware to software, office to plant, working mostly alone to working closely with a team, and from being a working technical engineer to working in project/personnel management. And the financial reward for good performers is very good. However, since it is still so difficult to learn much about automation in engineering schools and since most companies no longer offer extensive internal training like Monsanto did in the 1960s, it is a challenge to become well-trained. And you cant be good unless you are well-educated. In this environment, an automation professional needs to be a really good self-starter to master what he/she needs to know.