This article was printed in CONTROL's March 2009 edition.
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
Whenever I do a hardware article, I’m reminded of how many jobs machines and software are taking on that used to be done by people. I know it’s part of control and automation’s eternal mission, but it’s still startling to see how many clipboards are replaced by networked modules, and I worry what the people holding them are going to do.
Many veteran control engineers are retiring, of course, and that drain on the profession is well-documented. Still, many other engineers are in the middle or early parts of their careers, and most are making dramatic shifts in their job descriptions, from taking on added quality control functions to learning programming and IT-style tasks. There’s a lot to do, and I don’t just mean doing more quality-control activities on the same application or production line.
In case you’ve been in a coma or had your head buried in the pot of a large house plant—both popular options these days—you’ve seen that much of the U.S. and international economy has been melting down and imploding in recent months. Hundred of billions—soon to be trillions—of dollars have already been wasted, and job cuts are accelerating and savings are evaporating at rates not seen since the Great Depression. Many 401K plans are finally showing their true colors, revealing themselve as the risky swindles that they are and lousy replacements for the pensions that they replaced.
So if you’ve got some extra free time due to increased process automation and control, you might be able to use it to help improve your company’s financial operations as well as your application’s operating efficiency. Here’s one idea. We always hear a lot about how better remote sensing and intelligence, more powerful data processing and quicker networking allow the enterprise level and management to reach down into plant-floor processes for useful information. Well, maybe it’s a two-way street.
Perhaps operators and control engineers can or should be able to reach up to the bean counters. Maybe engineers can bring some of their common-sense experience up to the accountants and administrators. I think ensuring safe and efficient process operations, conducting proactive maintenance and all the other jobs control engineers do would easily qualify—if not overqualify—them to work at least part-time as accountants and executives.
There are simply too many parasites out there waiting to steal working people’s money, and I think engineers could help protect their colleagues and themselves from many financial worst practices. However, you may ask, what’s to keep engineers from behaving as irresponsibly as the financial buffoons that preceded them?
Well, even though cooking books is technically a batch process, most engineers wouldn’t do it because the implicit inaccuracy that’s part of being dishonest goes against their natures. Most of the process control engineers I know wouldn’t get involved with risky borrowing practices, such as relying on unreliable lenders for crucial operating capital or putting their co-workers’ 401K funds in overly optimistic and/or risky mutual funds.
Certainly, there would be major pushback from existing accountants and administrators. However, so many big companies are now in deep trouble thanks to the financial neglect and outright malfeasance of their executives that many might welcome a little fresh, logical, nose-to-the-grindstone thinking, even if it doesn’t come with an MBA. Heck, given how a hard it is to earn an electrical or mechanical engineering degree, most engineers could get the requisite degree without breaking a sweat.
Maybe this is another area where the plant-floor and IT could band together and gain some real influence at the management and executive levels. It never hurts to ask, and yelling can be useful too—if you pick your battles.
Consequently, after you implement automation to get your facility closer to lights-out operation, try to help with the financials, so your company’s lights don’t go out permanently.