The Measurement, Control and Automation Association (MCAA) kicked off its annual Industry Forum today at the Monte Carlo hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. The more than 200 attendees -- primarily from instrumentation manufacturers, distributors and rep organizations -- set a new attendance record, according to Marianne Gatten, conference chairwoman, and director of strategic planning and business development for Micro Motion. MCAA member companies gather at the Industry Forum each year to learn about the trends shaping the business of process automation and to share best practices.
First up, Marianne introduced keynote speaker Peter Zornio, who as chief strategic officer for Emerson Process Management, has a broad perspective on the forces shaping the global automation business. Zornio gave an "as usual" insightful overview of customer drivers, technology and marketplace trends.
Tepid Growth on Tap for Global Market
In terms of the overall process automation market, Zornio acknowledged that the global market was taking somewhat of a breather so far in 2013 after a sustained binge in 2012. More oil investments continue to come on line, along with global LNG investments. China and India have slowed, he admitted, "but they still believe that cars are better than bicycyles. That trend is not going backwards.
Investment in mining is continuing, and much of the global power industry's investment is shifting from coal to natural gas. China continues to invest in nuclear power as well, and Zornio predicts that nuclear will pick up in other world areas despite the Fukashima disaster. "Nuclear is hard to beat, given its ability to meet large base-load needs."
In North America in particular, the automation market is both benefitting and suffering from cheap natural gas. Further, oil output from Mexico and the Athabasca oil sands is growing. But investment in renewables has stalled, and uncertainly in Washington, DC, continues to present headwinds to automation investment.
All told, Emerson Process Management foresees moderate global growth of perhaps a couple percentage points in the process automation marketplace over the next several years, with 6% growth on the optimistic side vs. a 3% contraction on the pessimistic side. Among the factors contributing to uncertainty is continued instability in the Middle East.
Demographics Are Universal Challenge
"It's hard to visit an industry trade show today, without the subject to demographics coming up," Zornio said, citing the global need to replace retiring workers with new employees. Industry is asking: "how do we equip a new employee to make decisions like a more experienced one?"
One way in which the process industries are starting to address this issue is by leveraging remote access technology so that they can "re-locate for returns" and "co-locate for collaboration." By the first, Zornio means moving employees from higer to lower cost locations. Companies can then concentrate expertise and leverage it over larger geographical areas. Co-location of experts in related disciplines also can allow companies to make collaborative decisions more quickly and respond to incidents more effectively, Zornio said.
This trend is typified by the emergance over the past several years of integrated operations, or "IOps" centers, that go beyond trandition control rooms and address "business command" functionality. These IOps centers started with operations, but have been adding maintenance, collaboration, production planning and business operations capabilities. These command centers bring together new data types and collaboration tools to bring together in-plant video with remote subject mattter experts, traditional control panels and dashboards of safety, effiency and productivity KPIs. "Remote monitoring has been in use for a while now for complex equipment like turbomachinery," Zornio said. "But it will soon be pervasive for all types of equipment."
Also key to making less experienced employees more productive is making control and instrumentation technologies less complex and easier to use. It was ease of use that finally drove the PC to universal adoption, Zornio noted. "But we still have a lot of technology in the automation market that doesn't work that way."
In particular, maintenance and reliability is the next frontier of automation technology, Zornio said. Automation is relatively mature, and many companies now have a unified view of their oeprational status, but they don't have that for maintenance and reliability. "We do a lousy job of deciding where to invest to improve reliability -- which is often a plant's number one profit improvement opportunity."
Wireless: Just Getting Started
The biggest technology trend reshaping the practice of process automation is wireless and the mobility it affords. "We're now where cell phones were 15 years ago," Zornio argued. "It's not a matter of if, only a matter of when." Problems presented by power, by intrinsic safety, by other operational obstacles will be solved--and wireless will continue to redefine what's possible in sensing, in workforce productivity and business and plant management. "The same way information workers today are tehered to their business through communications technology, the ultimate mobile worker will be always connected and fully 'instrumented' wherever he is in the plant."
Zornio also predicts that industry will finally take cyber security seriously, pointing to the recent Shamoon attack that knocked out 30,000 computers at Saudi Aramco. "Do you think they're not looking seriously at doing something about cyber security?" Zornio said. "Do you think other companies aren't thinking that could have been us?" Zornio mused that there might even be an opportunity for some DCS manufacturer to go "Back to the Future" by offering a proprietary control system that while conceding the advantages of open systems technology re-establishea the comfortable bygone days of "security by obscurity."
What Will Your New Buyers Expect?
In the context of demographic shifts in the process automation community, Zornio also asked if the assembled audience of instrementation suppliers was ready for the new demands of next generation workers. Increasingly, they have extremely high expectations of their relationships with business-to-comsumer digital businesses like Amazon and eBay, Zornio said. "Are you investing in this?" he asked.
On the positive side, industry trends like "big data" within the process manufacturing industry will only mean more measurements and more software, which translates to more opportunities for MCAA member companies. And the global demands for stuff -- for plastics and metals, energy and food -- all are pointing up, Zornio said. And that means that the automation and instrumentation business will remain viable for any foreseeable future.