Embracing changing technologies provides more options, opportunities

Key is to learn as much as possible to make digital technologies safe, secure and successful in process settings.

By Jim Montague

As usual, and I’m sure this is true for many of you, this year’s autumn season has been a frantic dash of work, deadlines, sleep deprivation, indigestion and suspiciously arthritic stiffness. In my case, this means covering all sides of the takeover by digital computing and software of the process control industries and apparently everything else. It’s no stretch to say that big data, cybersecurity, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and their permutations are all part of the same upheaval.

I mostly write about success stories because that’s what people are willing to talk about, even though problems and disasters make better and more instructive stories. However, with an earthquake like the digital emergence, there are plenty of snags, failures, restarts and other wrenching changes. With shifts this big, there’s always some collateral damage.

That’s because we aren’t talking about switching out a flowmeter, repairing an RTU or even migrating a DCS. As challenging as those tasks can be, depending on circumstances, they still involve replacing known technologies with other technically familiar solutions.

No, the rush to digital is the latest chapter in at least two overarching evolutions from pneumatics to relays to PLCs to PC-based control, and the parallel progression from point-to-point hardwiring to fieldbuses to Ethernet and wireless. The difference here is moving from known technologies to unfamiliar if not unknown ones—and digital’s faster, cheaper and more powerful software and microprocessors are only accelerating its rise and march to critical mass in process control and automation.

Ignoring change is actually a response, of course, but it’s not a very good one, even though it doesn’t require much effort.

Of course, even though they’re glued to the same smart phones and tablet PCs as their neighbors, few process engineers can take comfort in digital’s wide acceptance in mainstream, consumer and business settings. In fact, digital’s freewheeling nature makes most process professionals more nervous because of the safety and critical operating responsibilities they bear.

So, what’s to be done? Because so many of these shifts are pretty much inevitable, the only solution is to make the best of it. This means learning as much as possible to make digital technologies safe, secure and successful in process settings. It means giving up prejudice and denial, adopting the most useful parts of digital technologies, and mitigating the irrelevant, unhelpful, wasteful or dangerous parts. Cybersecurity? Yes, please. Big data? We’ll see.

Ignoring change is actually a response, of course, but it’s not a good one, even though it doesn’t require much effort. Accepting change, if not embracing it, and trying to work with its details provides more options and possible opportunities. Plus, the comfort in this situation comes from realizing this is how people cope with every new technology and disruptive change through history and in their lives.    

Download: Béla Lipták on safety: Cyber security and nuclear power

Which brings me to elections. I’m writing this before 2016’s contests resolve on Nov. 8. I’m not sure how any are going to go, and as a former newspaper person, I take polls with a huge grain of salt. Like most folks, I prefer some candidates over others, and I’ll be glad if the ones I vote for win, and sad if they lose.      

But what does anyone do after the smoke clears and it’s time to pick up the pieces? Whether it was a great wedding, holiday or celebration—and especially if it was a bad or even tragic event—someone still needs to wash the dishes, change the diapers and pay the bills. Those chores are always waiting for mom, dad or some other responsible person to get them done. Likewise, I also remember that once election hoopla is over, the routine budget meetings will begin again, and few if any taxpayers will show up to help the elected officials shop smart for the necessities we buy as a community.

As usual, our responses to DCS migrations, digital technologies, big data, cybersecurity, IIoT, elections, dishes and diapers are pretty much the same. Win or lose, it’s time to do some chores.  

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