Following break out sessions by Vance VanDoren, whose day job is to write for Control Engineering, on "Opportunities with Industry Specific Search Engines," and Paul Cherry, president of Performance Based Results on "Questions that Sell: The Powerful Process to Motivate Customers to Buy," we were stimulated by a terrific keynote address by Rick Dolezal, marketing development manager for process systems at Rockwell Automation.
Rick's talk, "The Future of Automation: 30 Years Hence," grew out of a monthly series of discussions he and I have been having for over a year, which have greatly benefited me and my insight into the future of automation.
Rick said his goal was to make the forty minute talk a time when all his listeners were fully alive, in the same way he was as a kid when his next door neighbor, Len Dawson (longtime QB of the KC Chiefs) threw him a pass in his driveway. He clearly fulfilled his goal, making us all think quite a bit.
In the introduction to his talk, I had Shari Worthington say, "Rick is a terrific guy. He is methodical, and he doesn't think outside the box. He sits there and looks at the box. Then he takes all the things outside the box, inspects them carefully, takes the box apart and builds a completely new and different box and then puts all the box-things back in a completely new and wonderful way."
Rick noted that Popular Mechanics magazine showed a "home computer" mockup designed by the Rand Corporation in 1954. "Scientists from the RAND Corp have created this model to illustrate how a 'home computer' could look like in the year 2004. However the needed technology will not be economically feasible for the average home. With teletype interface and the Fortran language, the computer will be easy to use," Dolezal quoted deadpan.
Of course, we convulsed with laughter over our blackberries and laptops. Fortran!
"Thirty years ago," Dolezal said, "What were we thinking?"
It was 1978
You had time to bid a job
All phones were wired-- with dials
Gas stations had bells that rang when you pumped
You could fix your TV at the drugstore
No one knew what a Microsoft was...
Chat rooms included the dinner table, the front porch, and amateur or CB radio
"What problems did we have 30 years ago?" Dolezal asked.
--communication between plants and the home office
--high inventories, no real time insight into the marketplace
--automation was limited, data from the plant floor was hard to come by
--energy costs were skyrocketing
--discrete and process manufacturing operated on separate systems...
--plants and manufacturing sites had many systems running individual factory operations, hadn't merged process and discrete manufacturing processes, had little insignt into what was happening on the factory floor, controlled many processes manually, and energy costs were stratospheric and going higher.
How did we solve these problems? More data, new technologies, new approaches to plant operations, and a new breed of operators.
Dolezal went on to ask, "And What problems do we have now?"
--less people, the same or fewer assets, increased demand for more production, less waste, more efficiency, improved tracking, and higher quality-- along with standards and the requirement for standards-based manufacturing processes, a mix of equipment within a plant for process and discrete manufacturing. Energy costs are still skyrocketing, and we still have little insight into front office and plant floor goals.
And how will we address these issues? More data, new technologies, new approaches to plant operations, and a new breed of plant operators. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
There will be data drivers. All systems will be linked and there will be one master key password, one login for all systems and data will only have to be entered one time. Suppliers will adapt to changing purchasing patterns, even weather.
Dolezal noted in passing that Wal-Mart has discovered that the demand for Strawberry Pop Tarts increases when there is a hurricane. So now, they make sure to increase inventory of Strawberry Pop Tarts in potential hurricane zones.
He suggested that plants will control to profit, not necessarily to optimum performance. He said that Rockwell had recently provided an HMI to a customer where there was a red/green indicator that changed its color from red to green whenever the profit threshhold was crossed, and operators were now trying to control to make the green light stay on. Control to profit.
Real time performance management (RtPM) will drive performance improvement, along with overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) metrics.
For new technologies, Dolezal mentioned RFID tracking production, people and equipment. Wireless will make sensors and power less costly. Plant artificial intelligence (AI) will make routine decisions, based on performance models, freeing plant personnel to take a broader view of plant operations. Equipment and systems will become substantially self-diagnosing and will submit their own corrective or preventative work orders. ("This is the process controller. Please check my diagnostics and repair me!")
Product variability is lessened through adaptive advanced control, and applications modules will make it possible to do many things without generating custom code at all. "Like Legos..."
PLCs and DCS systems will disappear into Plant Automation Systems. Paper trails for manufacturing and validation will disappear, leaving electronic data records. Applications will be designed to a target, and modeled beforehand-- allowing an efficient match of hardware, control system and the application itself.
The often-reached goal is no downtime.
In plant operations, there may well not be formal control rooms. All employees may wear virtual displays (HUDs) with work instructions, real time trends and alarms, and presentation will be unique to the individual and his or her role, and the area of the plant they are currently in.
Smaller, cellular structured plants will be created that are highly adaptive, and plants will be greener-- burning their own waste for fuel, with lights out manufacturing and reclamation of energy in all plant operations. Lights and building services will turn on automatically and only when needed.
There will be better diagnostics and explanations of what to do when anomalies happen. In many hazardous areas, robots will take the place of human workers.
We can work anywhere we will have high speed access-- from our laptop or our PDA, or whatever replaces those devices. We can make items anywhere. There will be a renewed focus on local manufacturing, because that will reduce cost and increase just in time delivery.
There will be a resurgence of cottage industries. Ebay makes it possible to market goods no matter how small you are, and there will be many production centers that make specialty items. All supplier information will feed into the plant control system and that system will then feed information to the customer. All information will continuously be kept up to date with patches and firmware releases. The work focus will cycle back to proactive instead of the reactive focus we've had for nearly a generation.
We'll be using the iPod generation as operators. There will be a Manufacturing Management degree combining electrical enginering, accounting, manufacturing, business and computer systems.
Engineers will respect IT and even ask them to come to meetings, and IT will value and request engineering input. These two groups may become so intertwined as to become indistinguishable.
There will be a high degree of automation as the world rapidly globalizes. The availability of "cheap" skilled human labor will dry up.
With all this automation, opeators will have much more time to optimize the process.
Biometric information will be used as login information. Information will automatically populate to relevant areas. Standards will allow more productive use of automation professionals.
Dolezal noted that some things will stay the same.
The balance between open low-cost systems and security will stay the same. The goal will be to build applications fast, and the next one faster...and he who makes it easiest to config...Wins!
People who understand business processes and the means of making them occur-- will be in high demand.
The person who knows how something works will always have a job...but the person who knows why it works that way...will be their boss.
"So," Dolezal concluded, "what should you be doing today, knowing all this is coming?
"Expand your boundaries--go to the other groups within your company and spend time there. Embrace new technologies, implement standards, embrace other disciplines, and embrace youth. Challenge them and include them. Get out of your plant or manufacturing facility. Get an iPod. Try new things and experiences. Commit earlier. Take full advantage of incremental gains-- throw short passes."
He quoted Alan Kay of Apple Computer: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
"Our goal," Dolezal finished, "is to turn dreams into realities."