By John Rezabek, Contributing Editor
Maybe you've flipped past the TV show "Outsourced" in prime time on NBC this season. It's a sitcom whose writers are aiming to find humor in our stereotypes of Indian society and its interactions with ours. If you're among those thinking that India's industry consists of telemarketing call centers and Microsoft tech support, I'd invite you to have a closer look. India makes me think about the generation that once dismissed "Made in Japan," and now passes the rusted-out ruins of their factories on the way to the unemployment office. The India that I had the opportunity to experience firsthand this year was a lot more about "Movin' on Up" than "Sanford and Son."
While we've been slogging through the Great Recession, India's trillion-dollar economy has had steady growth, and analysts expect it to continue growing about 7% a year for the next decade. This exuberance has certainly been a factor in helping us out of our economic woes, providing a floatation device to our instrument and controls suppliers when our economy crash-landed and sunk in the Hudson. Companies such as Emerson, Invensys, Yokogawa and their peers aren't selling phones and PCs to India—they are supplying an enormous and booming process industry.
This year, I had to fight the crowds at the Fieldbus Foundation General Assembly (GA) in Mumbai, and I was reminded of what Walt Boyes wrote from Beijing last year: "In China, manufacturing is still an honorable career path and automation is an honorable profession."
So it is in India. India graduates up to four times more engineers than lawyers—depending on what statistics you believe—and at a pace double the rate in the United States.
Our host one day was B.R. Mehta, vice president at Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL, www.ril.com), an Indian enterprise still run by the family of its late founder, self-made billionaire Dhirubhai Ambani. In three years, Reliance completed a 500,000 BPD petroleum refinery expansion in Jamnagar and a huge refining and petrochemical complex on the Arabian Sea. The largest Foundation fieldbus (FF) installation to date, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 FF devices, Jamnagar is not producing refined products for India. It's an export refinery, whose gasoline, diesel and jet fuel can show up anywhere in the world. Ponder this next time you find something to chuckle about on "Outsourced." Reliance is not only employing FF in its refineries, but also on its trans-continental natural gas pipeline and deep-water production facilities.
And Reliance isn't alone in employing fieldbus. I was sitting by Jasbar Singh, an engineering executive from Essar (www.essar.com). I recalled that I'd read about a fellow from a small U.S. PLC systems integrator, who was decrying the need for oscilloscopes to troubleshoot fieldbus problems. Now, I've used the ‘scope maybe a half-dozen times in 10 or 11 years to understand an FF problem, but I asked Mr. Singh, "How many of your techs can use an oscilloscope?" "All of them" he said. "They are all trained, and everyone has many examples of waveforms and what they should look like."
Maybe the need for physical-layer troubleshooting is increased in process plants that experience extended periods of searing heat and humidity and months of monsoonal rain. But I have to think about Mr. Singh when I consider whether fieldbus is "too hard" for westerners.
Maybe you're familiar with the "rule of 20." It states something to the effect that a technician randomly chosen from a field of 20 (for an after-hours call-out) needs to diagnose and repair a problem in 20 minutes. You might get Homer Simpson, so you'd better plan accordingly. Today the rule is used as an excuse to keep antiquated technologies. Any upgrade that requires effort to master is too high a hurdle. But the societies with whom we compete in this century don't coddle laggards. If we stay on that path, perhaps someday our "Homers" will keep the Indians chuckling over the U.S. workers in their sitcoms.