Looking toward the future of process control

April 7, 2017
'If we can just leave enough wisdom in the system to keep this generation from blowing it up, I expect we’ll be amazed at what they can do with today’s information and technology,' says Paul Studebaker

Back in the 1980s, when I graduated as a metallurgist and started a second career as a process engineer in manufacturing, companies often hired people mainly to get access to what they knew. I had several shelves of handbooks and textbooks, and I knew how to use them. We subscribed to journals, read papers, attended conferences and combed through patent filings to keep up with technical developments. If we had a little downtime before 5 p.m., we were perfectly justified in sitting and reading Control and similar quality periodicals, on the clock.

Most of the job was in-house consulting on process definition and on improving quality, efficiency and throughput. Mainly, I acquired and disseminated knowledge—I designed experiments and equipment, documented procedures, troubleshot production problems, etc. Production, plant engineering, product engineering and maintenance did all the work. I just had to know how to tell them what I knew in a way that made sense to them and that they could appreciate.

As I recollect, the company made its last engineering hire by 1987. Despite growth and myriad technical challenges, we added no technical personnel before I left in 1992. We really didn’t need to because computers and software freed up increasing amounts of our time, so we could pick up the workload. My former coworkers told me I was never replaced.

What I knew still had intrinsic value when I joined Control early in 1993, but it fell pretty rapidly after that. By around 1995, the contents of my bookshelves became available on the Internet, so I donated the references and textbooks to the local library (except Béla's handbook, of course). Thanks to the information technology revolution, my value as a repository of wisdom has flatlined, and for the past 20 years I’ve mainly been paid for what I get done, not what I know.

Instead of filling peoples’ heads, knowledge is increasingly available on demand. The books (and consultants) are disappearing as we move into an era where data and software applications rise to take their place.

We boomer engineers have scrambled to preserve our value in the face of relentless automation, and we've done that almost well enough to lock a full generation—maybe two—out of manufacturing.

But along the way, many of us lost our mission: to define and control processes to improve quality, efficiency and throughput. We spent—and spend—our time assimilating the explosion in information technology, covering more ground through increased work efficiency, and preserving our department budgets by paying ourselves while not hiring fresh talent. We blame corporate and upper-level management for not funding the significant improvements we could make with more engineers and more money, and excuse ourselves for not convincing them because we’re just too busy maintaining what we’ve got.

Industry is fortunate in many ways that we’re retiring in droves. I attend a lot of user group meetings, and based on their questions, I’d say the attendees generally fall into two groups: people who know a lot, and people who do a lot. Information technology is rapidly displacing the need for many of the first group.

Today’s Internet- and software application-savvy engineers are truly a different breed, with different talents. They're not fettered by our established rules and perceptions. For example, last month's ARC Forum included a keynote by David Woessner at Local Motors, which 3D-prints automobiles. As a boomer metallurgist, I'd say that's completely impractical, but I'm wrong.

When this generation is willing to do a lot, it’s easy—almost automatic—for them to know a lot. If we can just leave enough wisdom in the system to keep them from blowing it up, I expect we’ll be amazed at what they can do with today’s information and technology.