What’s in a Name?

Dec. 10, 2007
ISA Council of Society Delegates votes to rename the society the International Society for Automation.
By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

In October, a large majority of the ISA Council of Society Delegates voted to rename the society the International Society for Automation. However, the required supermajority was not reached−we missed the mark by less than one percent− and the measure failed. Nothing could better illustrate the pains of a changing profession.

When I was a young man, instrumentation and control was the name of the part of the profession I worked in, and automation was what they did at automobile plants with relays and those new things called robots. Soon, we began to divide the profession into those who worked in process control and those who worked in factory automation. There’s that word again…automation. Soon we were building and automating testing devices in the electronics industry…ATEs. There’s that word again…automation.

Later yet, the division was between process and discrete automation, with this strange thing called hybrid automation spawned by the batch people who created ISA-88 and ISA-95, the batch and manufacturing standards.

The truth is that nearly all of the productivity gains in the past 30 years came from operating unit optimization strategies and automation. Yet CEOs and especially CFOs don’t know what we do, or how valuable we are. We need to change that.

What we’re finding is that the profession again is changing, consolidating and growing. The body of knowledge required to be a real automation professional includes knowledge from both sides of the discipline, as well as knowledge that was never in the core of instrumentation and control systems, like networking, security, systems analysis, and business systems.

Looking at what we do from 30,000 feet, it sure looks to me like the best overall name for the discipline we work in is “automation” with “control systems” and “instrumentation,” “analyzers,” and “field devices” and “control valves” and “test and measurement systems” all showing up as sub-disciplines of automation. Automation is the big tent that holds all the others.

And this works in the famous elevator speech, too. When you try to distill what we do so that we can explain it to the CEO, or to our wife’s best friend at a party, it’s a lot easier, and more intelligible, to say, “I work in manufacturing automation,” or “process automation,” or “I help automate the processes that make (insert whatever your plant does).” This is a lot easier than trying to explain that instrumentation doesn’t mean you play in a band.

The profession we follow is changing even more. We are being pulled out from behind our flowmeters and differential pressure transmitters, analyzers, PLCs and control valves and made to act as business process analysts, as well as engineers and technicians. We can either fight to the death to retain our old labels, or we can willingly embrace the new responsibilities our companies have thrust upon us. One is safe, the other scary. But one will continue the cycle of layoffs and downsizing, while the other reinforces the importance we have to the conduct of successful business.

I know which I choose. I am proudly an automation professional.