Fieldbus Flavor of the Month

We May Be Missing Real Innovation in Our Field. Lets Adopt the Latest Controls or Instrument or Network Technology Flavor

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One of my first forays into a "flavor of the month" delivered a simple and sensible message: that operations, maintenance and engineering should cease being adversaries and work together. What a concept! We needed a highly paid consultant to come in and point out this dysfunction, which remained astonishingly prevalent in our process plants for years after. Maybe that was because the medicine was applied to the minions and not so much to the management.

If you've worked in corporate America for a while, there's a good chance you've become acquainted with what we jokily call the "flavor of the month." In large organizations, it's not uncommon for management to be anxious for methods to transform their workforce in a way that will deliver distinctive results compared to the competition. Some of this comes from the investor community, who attribute some prized attribute of one of your peers to a certain organizational behavior. But the rules of the beauty contest are constantly changing, and there is always an extensive repertoire of new books or manuals describing the newest revolution in cheese-seeking. There is a certain numbing sameness about the soothsayers' sayings, a few scarce grains of truth, and predictable irony. How often have we heard "people are our greatest asset" in the midst of widespread layoffs, early retirement incentives or decades of unmitigated attrition?

On the front lines of the process industries, we've learned to receive this manner of managerial flailing with a grain of salt. Our mission has always been fairly straightforward: deliver safety, reliability, quality and volume, more or less in that order. And we've become accustomed to being asked to do so at low or no cost, with fewer people and less hardware. Hurdles for obtaining capital are high, largely because investors have their snouts to the ground, snorting and rooting for the next iPhone or Viagra breakthrough. Compared to such game-changing innovations or discoveries, obtaining millions of dollars for a DCS upgrade or a new safety interlock system appears innocuous and mundane. So when we're corralled and marched through the latest transformative organizational learning opportunity, we appreciate it mainly for the included free meal, and have every expectation the jobs we left at the office or the plant await us unchanged.

As instrument and controls professionals, we're not the best understood or uniformly appreciated contributors to the enterprise. The lofty philosophies spouted at us may be irrelevant to the task at hand, but maybe we can still benefit from some of this starry introspection. Ask yourself, am I slogging in the same furrows as I did a decade ago, or as my predecessors did 30 years ago? If you are, do you think that's the path to prosperity? What we may be missing is that real innovation in our field may not consist of adopting the latest controls or instrument or network technology flavor. It may be in what we do and how we do it.

Delivering reliable, credible measurements and stable, responsive controls has always been our mission. But measurements without a thinking, logical and intuitive mind to stare at and interpret them is like a dog watching TV. We talk a lot about diagnostics these days, but every diagnostic is itself a "measurement" of some property that aims to represent some state of the process or condition of an asset. So conversely, all measurements are "diagnostics." So what if our mission was transformed from janitor of data to artist of intelligence? The question whether I use the latest network becomes secondary to what I'm prepared to do with it.

The "flavor of the month" in I&C technology may be compelling, and may even prove to be the "best in class" solution someday. But how we use the power and diagnostics of intelligent devices may be where the real innovation and great power to deliver value lies. The opportunities for the distinctive performance our managers pine for are present in the universe of data we now have at our disposal. 

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