By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
I’ve found that covering any municipal, professional or technical community eventually makes me concerned about its long-term health. Seeking solutions for the structures, players and problems of any group inevitably leads to wondering what other problems may still be lurking out there, beyond one’s usual awareness and understanding. After awhile, I also begin to see patterns and unifying trends—some more disturbing than others. My latest worry is that the devices and technologies used in process control and automation are all becoming the same. Almost every component now seems to have Ethernet and USB ports, internal memory and computing and Internet capability too. No doubt, 7-Eleven will soon have PLCs along with the milk, bread and eggs. Now that’s homogenization.
For example, a few months ago, I researched and wrote about industrial computers and found that almost any device in any configuration can do data processing. I usually try to define what I’m writing about, but I now was faced with the fact that industrial computers don’t need keyboards or screens and can run headless on DIN rails, on embedded chips or even in connectors. If it’s only the function that defines a computer, then its form is irrelevant.
More recently, I covered asset management, and again encountered a mind-bending lack of definition. While asset management used to be mostly keeping track of plant hardware and equipment, it now embraces everything that produces value for the organization. This may follow modern accounting practices, but it didn’t help me narrow down my topic because almost anything from the lowliest sensor to the most complex spreadsheet can produce useful data and contribute to asset management.
For this month’s issue, I was hoping my recorders and data acquisition story would be realtively simple to cover. Fat chance. Paper-chart and paperless DAQ units of the past are giving way to any component with a software-based historian, data collection interface and trending functions. Dang, I was right back at square one of my industrial computer and asset management stories! Whiplash and an existential crisis simultaneously. Ouch!
Of course, the culprit here is the ever faster, smaller, cheaper and pervasive power of computers and software, which are still only beginning to hit their stride in process control. I used to think PCs would simply “assist” controls, but it seems like “total transformation” might be a better phrase. I get the feeling that even this partial awareness of the changes that really omnipresent computing will bring is still far short of the reality. A flood around your ankles is a lot different than one around your neck.
So, will computers and software completely submerge and commoditize controls and automation? Probably, but I still doubt it. Certain doom is no more guaranteed than certain success. And one good thing about the unknown is that once details of a threat appear, they usually contain opportunities. Likewise, users will always be on different levels of understanding and adoption, so many older technologies will endure. Even inertia has its useful side.
Still, some technologies will coalesce and fade. It often happens that once-fluid and fruitful pursuits dry up like old riverbeds, making expected passages seems hopelessly closed. I’ve witnessed physical and mental paths forward blocked in many projects. However, the resulting delay channels effort into detours and unexpected side rooms that can lead to new routes. Back in sleepover camp, we learned that, if you run your canoe aground, you can walk. Makes me glad I’m not a whale, technically speaking.
Out beyond Ethernet, wireless and the Internet is a new stream of potential applications. These may include solar- and hydrogen-based power sources and related technologies, unified manufacturing/business/consumer networks, biologically-based control strategies, and nano-scale, quantum and perhaps sentient computing. Science never stays fiction for long. So pick up your canoe and get moving.