Refocusing Our Efforts

Oct. 23, 2003
Looking back at 15 years of CONTROL
Ten years ago, in October 1993, Around the Loop commented on CONTROLs fifth anniversary. The discussion centered on major capital investments and their role in stretching the technology of process control. Now, on CONTROLs 15th anniversary, the stimulus of capital expansion is diminishing, at least in our North American home market, but other opportunities abound for astute practitioners to advance the trade.

Process control is alternately a profession, an occupation, a technology, a market, and a tool. The tool part is important because it is the foundation of all. If process control didnt improve the economics of the production of energy, fuels, and materials that society values, the whole (process control) enterprise would simply vanish.

Therein lies our challenge, to continually refocus our efforts on improving the economics of production (safety, productivity, efficiency). This means adaptability and flexibility in applying our skills and experience. Change, for good or bad, is the essential characteristic of a living organism, and living, with all its warts and blemishes, is a lot better than the alternative.

From the beginning, CONTROLs specific focus was process control. Editor Brian Wolske wrote in the inaugural issue:

If youre involved with control instrumentation in the process industries, this new magazine is designed for you " exclusively.

Feature articles included:

* Integrating PLCs and PCs in Process Control

* Fault-Tolerant Control Systems

* Mini & Microcomputers in the Food Industry

* Expert Systems in Process Monitoring

* Improving Control of Batch Reactors

* ISA SP-50 Fieldbus Standard

The ISA SP-50 committee, which had codified the 4-20 mA transmitter signal standard in 1975, had been reactivated in October 1984 to develop its digital equivalent. After four years, the complexity of this assignment was becoming apparent.

Authors Steve Oxenberg and Robert Sheng noted that, although representatives of DuPont, Dow and Exxon Chemical chaired the major component efforts, "there is a growing fear among users concerning the potential complexity of SP-50 products." In fact, another decade would pass before substantive progress in implementing digital fieldbus technology would be apparent. The hope of a single universal standard foundered on the shoals of economic nationalism and parochial competitive concerns.

Supply chain management, asset management and related methodologies were nowhere in sight 15 years ago. SAP was slang for a guileless person, and wireless was not even on the agenda. Nonetheless, the technical articles cited above remain reasonably topical.

The inaugural issue carried a report from D.F. Blumberg & Associates (Fort Washington, Pa.) that the U.S. process control market for instruments, controls, software, services, and purchased maintenance was projected to reach $7 billion in 1988. Based on recent Top 50 surveys, this figure should be about $14 billion in 2003. Based on the first process control market report I wrote for Frost & Sullivan (October 1973), the comparable figure that year was about $2 billion.

At first glance, this market grew much faster during 1973-88 (just under 9% compound annual growth) than during 1988-2003 (just under 5% per year). I still use a slide-rule for figuring compound growth rates, so single-digit precision is about the best you can do. The market numbers themselves, however, are pretty fuzzy and cant support a high-powered analysis. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see highly precise projections derived from order-of-magnitude data.

A number of factors account for the apparent deceleration in process control market growth. Price inflation was much higher in the earlier period, particularly in 1973-82. As the market expands, sustaining a higher growth becomes increasingly difficult and 5% is not at all shabby in a maturing market.

In 1973, the process control business was product-centered. Services were provided but to support the products, not as a separate source of value. When I joined IBMs control systems marketing team in 1961, we provided services and software galore but these costs were buried in the control systems rental price. Microsoft ruined this business strategy. In any case, services are now the value proposition in any business plan.

The evolution of a sizable sector for process control services should be an authentic opportunity for many CONTROL readers. Its a chance to ply the trade and even explore entrepreneurial enterprises. Everyone wants to be lucky, but luck is more often made than found. A wise former colleague advised that luck is preparation meeting opportunity. The Boy Scouts of America for almost a century have used the motto: Be prepared.

Terrence K. McMahon

McMahon Technology Associates

135 Fort Lee Road

Leonia, NJ 07605

Tel: 201-585-2050

Fax: 201-585-1968

[email protected]

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