"Ask me for anything but time."

Do you want to see the future of process automation? It is called "not enough time." People just don't have the time to work in the old ways any longer, in any field, but in manufacturing and in process automation it has become critical. Napoleon famously said, "Ask me for anything but time." Those of us who are working in process automation, whether as integrators, consultants or on the plant floor, completely understand what the great French general meant by that. What is happening, as Rich Merritt points out in his cover story, "Expertise Lost" in the April issue of CONTROL (now available early on the website), is that people are desperately developing systems to automate the process of designing control systems, just like we began to develop systems to automate running the processes of manufacturing in the 1960s. There are already simulation tools that allow engineers to develop the processes of an entire plant to make, well, just about darn anything. There are also design tools that permit those simulations to be dumped to CAD allowing nearly automated design of the controls and mechanical components of an entire process plant. People are going bugnuts trying to design these time savers because we're running out of time. We're also running out of expertise...the sort of expertise I've been talking about lately that enables a good engineer with a table of natural logs, a sliderule and a copies of some good textbooks to design from first principles. With enough time and enough expertise, we don't need the expert systems. Not having either of the first, we are anxiously dependent on development of the systems. Yesterday, Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief of Control Design magazine and I were treated to a sort of preview of an expert system in embryo. Created by MTT, a technical consulting consortium including motion control industry luminaries like George Gulalo, Dan Jones and Tom Bullock, you can see the demo we saw at Motioninfo.com. I encourage you to visit it, and see what it can do now. The problem with these selection tools, as expert systems, is that they aren't. Not really, and not usually. Anybody who has tried to use Google for a really detailed technical search, or even Globalspec for that matter, understands that what you get is far too general for real utility...in other words it doesn't save any time. Gulalo's tool, however, has the smarts. The smarts are in the search algorithms, which in this case are optimized for motion control. Right now, all he has is a sample database of motors. Soon he'll have other motion control components, and will be able to autodesign systems. The system could even be used in reverse, by MRO operators, who need a replacement for a 30-year old gearmotor, for example. Typing in the model number would generate the gearmotor's specs and then forward search the most compatible current model from the database. Cool. Time saving, you bet! But it ain't ready yet. George asks that if you are interested, go visit motioninfo.com, and give him feedback on what you like, don't like, and what you'd like to see it do. Comments? --Walt Boyes

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