Asset Management / Optimization

How control engineers can change the world

How automation empowers engineers to solve even mankind's biggest challenges

By Steve Diogo

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Drawing a direct line between the day-to-day work of control engineers and the capacity to solve the world's biggest problems, Peter Martin, vice president, business value consulting, Schneider Electric, laid out a mission for industry to transcend technology fixations in favor of solutions, and to solve the real problems in their plants by providing tools that empower operations to make real-time decisions using real-time data.

"All of the biggest problems in the world today are problems of control," Martin told the audience today at Schneider Electric's 2015 Global Automation Conference.

"And when we can properly define the problem, then we can begin to design the solution. Security is a real-time-control problem; safety is a real-time-control problem; environmental risk is a real-time-control problem."

Martin said technology needs to be a conduit, not a barrier, to solving these problems, and seeing the difference can depend on which lens we choose to view it through. He pointed to several developments in the past few decades, which, because of their focus on technology instead of solving real problems, became "solutions in search of a problem." Among them he listed expert systems, CIM, lights-out manufacturing: movements that Martin said were as ill-conceived as they were well-intentioned.

He warned that today's most promising developments—IoT, Big Data—have the same potential to become technology fetishes instead of solutions to real problems, and he urged everyone in the business and operation of industry to view them through the lens of the problems they can help solve.

"We used to focus on automation as way to eliminate people from industry; now we see that automation can free people to do their best in and through industry."

Solve world hunger

The first step to solving world hunger is to solve the problem of world energy, Martin said, explaining that once you solve the problem of access to affordable, reliable, safe power, then you have what you need to move on to the next problem, which is water.

"Half a million children per year die because they don't have access to clean drinking water," Martin said. "And yet we can build golf courses in the dessert. If we can build a green golf course in Dubai, we can build gardens in Africa."

And the way we get there, Martin said, is to see connection between what control engineers do every day and the larger value they can create.

"We can make plants run cleaner and better," he said. "Tuning leads to greater efficiency and reduced emissions. When you clean up a single loop, you make progress toward reaching these goals of solving the world's biggest problems. There is a straight line between cleaning up a loop and solving world hunger."

"When I was young, I had a tendency to bite off more than I could chew. My teachers and my parents always told me, 'don't try to solve world hunger.' Well, today I am challenging all of us to do just that: Let's solve world hunger."