Time for process automation professionals to evolve

Sept. 15, 2017
The flashy cuttlefish shows how to handle board-level computers.

Starting with Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and various Jacques Cousteau specials, I've glommed onto many nature shows in my time. The best for a long stretch have been Nature and Nova on PBS

Anyway, I'm always captivated by the adaptations our fellow multicellular creatures use to secure nutrition and pass along their DNA. For example, I remember being stunned to see how the squid-like cuttlefish can use the color-changing layers in its skin, not only for camouflage, but to flash vivid, repeating  patterns like a neon sign underwater. All the microscopic pigmentation cells and texture-inducing muscles in its skin work in unison to produce these effects. (Check out Nova's "Kings of Camouflage" episode).

Cuttlefish perform these displays for communication and hunting, I believe, but the kicker is their species are also ancient, which means they've been using this talent for tens of millions of years. Even so, there had to be a few lucky cuttlefish ancestors that happened upon the early manifestations of these skin-changing skills, and used these mutations to survive more successfully than their less-fortunate brothers way back when. The only catch is this cuttlefish competition—and the natural selection that favored and sharpened these flashing behaviors—had to take place over millions of years.

We humans have it a little easier. Our main advantage of opposable thumbs and occasional reasoning lets us manipulate items in our settings, but we can also pass along valuable techniques and tools knowledge without having to wait on natural selection's slower process over many generations. We still engage in trial-and-mostly-error, of course, but we can goof up and move on faster to hopefully more success.

Which bring me to this month's "Seriously?" cover story on Raspberry Pi, Arduino and other board-level computers running open-source software for process monitoring and maybe control. As I researched it, I learned the evolution towards computing, software and digitalization has been inexorable. Just as manual, pneumatic and relays gave way to programmable logic controllers, those PLCs—like all computers—began to shrink in size and price, gain power and capabilities, and widen and accelerate their networking with emerging Ethernet cabling and Internet protocol (IP) communications to the web, wireless, connections, cloud-based services, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and whatever comes next.

Just like Ethernet and wireless, board-level computers and open-source software are so cheap, fast and powerful that they can be deployed everywhere in bunches, cover widespread areas completely or close to it, and provide responses with an almost biological pervasiveness—like someone knowing when they've been touched anywhere on their skin. Maybe that's what made me think of the cuttlefish.

These events point out huge changes at the roots of the process control and automation industries. It isn't just that new capabilities and refinements are being achieved. The essential nature and substance of these technologies are changing at their cores, along with the jobs of the engineers and other technical professionals that employ them. Maybe this idea is obvious, but it's sure getting underlined lately.

What's to be done? Well, despite the technical upheaval, the challenges to survive and maybe thrive remain the same. You're still running through the same jungle, so to speak, it's just that now there are a lot more technological earthquakes, too. Just try to watch your feet. The saving grace is that learning about, programming and implementing board-level computers, open-source software, drones, wireless, Ethernet and their associates is much easier now. Setup, configuration, operations and maintenance are typically point-and-click, and increasingly automatic, which makes them easier to adopt.

So, are you ready to jump in prove that you're the scrappier cuttlefish? Or would you rather end up as someone's lunch? Your choice.

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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