This article was printed in CONTROL's November 2009 edition.
There are somewhere between 800,000 and 1.2 million automation professionals, as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor, working in the world today. According to ISA, the International Society of Automation, it has somewhere between 28,000 and 30,000 members, counting student and life members, worldwide. There are only two process verticals, water distribution and wastewater collection and treatment, which can run for any significant time without automation. There are no discrete or hybrid industry verticals that can. In fact, there are some verticals, such as semiconductor manufacturing, which aren't even possible without automation. You can't even build a clean room without automation.
And yet, ISA has managed to retain less than a half percent of its potential membership base. So, it seems that the International Society of Automation has done a lousy job of being relevant to the world of automation professionals.
However, there's more to the picture than just those facts.
ISA began as a purely U.S.-based process instrumentation and control organization, when a number of local sections got together and created a national organization. The sections were wise enough to maintain their independence by remaining separately incorporated, non-profit entities.
The current economic crisis has made ISA suddenly contract its activities. For most of its existence, its sources of funding were the ISA show, its magazines and publications, training and, trailing far behind, membership dues and subscriptions. As announced last month in Houston, the ISA Show is now a thing of the past—replaced by what is effectively a symposium and a regional tabletop show. All of ISA's revenue sources have been drying up for years. The only thing that has kept ISA afloat in recent years is that they had over $30 million in the bank as a rainy day surplus.
ISA has been tied to its past, and this has hampered its desperate efforts to become something new and relevant to the 21st-century world of automation and manufacturing in discrete, hybrid and process manufacturing.
ISA has a real opportunity here to restructure itself and become the real International Society of Automation.
What would happen if the international organization were to change its bylaws to become a non-member educational foundation, and let membership be the purview of the sections?
What would happen if the international society concentrated entirely on workforce development and relevant training and education?
What would happen if the international society either outsourced or abandoned all activities that did not directly contribute to the development of the automation profession as a recognized interdisciplinary career path, worldwide?
What would happen if the international society were to take public positions on issues such as industrial and process safety and functional security, and actively campaign for the licensing of process and factory operators who are in responsible charge of their plants?
What would happen if the sections received all the membership money less a small collection fee? Would this be enough for the sections to produce programming and training and local displays and activities that were relevant to their local members?
What would happen if ISA's leadership began to creatively restructure and reorganize the organization?
What I hope is that this crisis will allow ISA to truly become what those of us who have volunteered as ISA leaders for so many years have wanted it to: the voice of the automation profession anywhere and everywhere in the world.