Process Automation Key to Obama's 'New Era'

Feb. 11, 2009
President Obama's Initiatives to Resolve the Economic Crisis Call on the Skills of America's Engineering, Manufacturing and Process Automation Professionals
By Keith Larson, VP Content, Putman Media

“For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”  So said Barack Obama, now 44th President of the United States, in his inaugural speech to the millions gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and to the billions more tuned in around the world. Obama acknowledged the difficult tasks that lay ahead for the nation and the world while projecting an unabashed confidence in the ability of America to rise to the challenge, and, in an unveiled jab at the outgoing administration, “to lead once more.”

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many,” Obama said. “But know this, America—they will be met.”

And if they are indeed met, those of us in the process automation community will have played a central role. Indeed, three essential aspects of Obama’s vision are to elevate America’s commitment to science and technology; to invest in and protect the nation’s critical infrastructure—notably a “smarter” power grid and key industrial and manufacturing sites; and to fundamentally reshape the energy landscape. If undertaken, these initiatives will call on the skills of America’s engineering and manufacturing professionals in general—and process automation professionals in particular.

For starters, the Obama-Biden plan sets a positive tone toward the importance of engineering by supporting the doubling of government funding of basic research, with the intent to “change the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology.”

The administration’s call to invest in and protect the nation’s critical infrastructure calls for the creation of a National Infrastructure Protection Plan that would likely encompass new regulations for ensuring that industrial sites are protected from man-made disruption and natural disaster. From power plants to chemical plants to water distribution systems, process automation professionals will be called on to ensure the physical and cybersecurity of the country’s infrastructure assets. The remaking of the electrical grid into a “smart” one, will place new cybersecurity demands on the nation’s SCADA systems.

But for the process automation community, perhaps the most important and farthest reaching Obama initiative is his call to fundamentally re-engineer how Americans produce and consume energy. In order to reduce our dependence on foreign energy and mitigate climate change, Obama has set a vision that will challenge the innovation of process automation professionals at every step of the way.

Key elements of the administration’s “New Energy for America” vision include the investment of $150 billion over the next 10 years with the aim of creating five million new clean energy jobs. A cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 will have us all scrambling to increase efficiency through advanced control strategies and the deployment of high-efficiency motors and variable-speed drives. Ambitious goals for electric power from renewables and biomass fuels imply extensive research investment and new capital spending in wind, biomass and solar production facilities—all of which must be designed, built and controlled.

Of course, Obama’s vision is anything but assured. All of this change will cost real money, and given the current economic head winds, progress will be slow.

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” Obama said in his inaugural address, “a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

Here’s wishing him—and all of us—well in the endeavor.