Voices: Montague

Don't Look Back, Developing Economies May Already Be Ahead On Process Automation

It Would Be Best to Discard Many Old Assumptions -- or at Least Take Them With a Big Grain of Salt -- and Go Check Out the World as It Really Is

By Jim Montague

When I started researching this issue's "Far Out in the Field" cover story on supporting process automation in developing economies and remote areas, I thought there was a fairly clear division between developed areas where equipment, technical support, integration services and educated staff are all readily available, and less developed regions where supply lines are stretched, expertise isn't around the corner and trained personnel are scarce. Basically, I thought it would be North America, Europe and the rest of the developed world versus everywhere else, or what used to be called the Third World.

Pretty much every phone call, inquiry and interview after that reminded me how full of baloney I and my assumptions were. Many regions that I assumed were underdeveloped were actually very developed in many ways, and some places that I thought were developed were actually in need of a lot of development, support and education.

One of my first wake-up calls was when our friends at Honeywell Process Solutions reminded me that they've been manufacturing process controls and other devices in South America for more than 50 years, including avionics and other advanced components. Likewise, the remote copper mines in Chile and the offshore and onshore oil rigs in Gabon have both been operating for decades, and use some of the world's most advanced process control equipment. So, even though most of the world's greenfield process control projects reportedly occur in these developing regions, there appear to be many well-established, legacy applications that are just as much in need of renovation and technical upgrades as their counterparts in North America and Europe.

Conversely, the recent boom in fracking for natural gas and oil in U.S. shale deposits is creating conditions in some states that are very similar to what we might expect to find in other undeveloped territories. For example, drilling sites and production wells in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and other states are multiplying so quickly that there's not enough infrastructure to transport the raw material to refiners via the usual U.S. pipeline networks. So  trucks and railroads have been taking over a lot of the logistics for moving oil from the Bakken, Marcellus and other shale regions.

Likewise, there's not enough manpower and engineering expertise to handle North Dakota's oil boom, so workers have been coming in from other parts of the country to help. However, this rapid influx of new people into a rural area is stressing limited local housing, law-enforcement and other municipal resources, and many of the incoming migrant workers are often being forced to live in temporary camps. A good account of North Dakota's oil-related growing pains is described in "The New Oil Landscape" by Edwin Dobb in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic, which is accessible at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/03/bakken-shale-oil/dobb-text.

Sounds just like conditions in a remote, overseas, Third-World location, doesn't it? However, this time it's right on our doorstep. My point is that, just as each process control application has its own unique characteristics, quirks and requirements, each geographic location and community has its own needs, advantages and potential. And, just as the trick is to investigate and give each process application what it needs, the same can be done wherever it happens to be located.

I think it would be best to discard many old assumptions—or at least take them with a big grain of salt—and go check out the world as it really is. If you can't afford airplane tickets, there are lots of video, social media and other online sources of first-hand information about supposedly developing economies, which are actually a lot more complicated than the convenient, misleading labels placed on them. Happy travels!

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