Adapt or die: How do we navigate continuous industry change?

Nov. 1, 2016
Embrace new technologies, redesign/retool, and vote

The title above is a line from the movie “Moneyball” (2011), which comes up when the Oakland A’s general manager chooses big data for baseball over the traditional intuition of old-school scouts. It’s a largely true story, and as always, more details are on YouTube.

This line bubbled up after close to another year of tradeshows and users groups that had a common thread running through most of the keynotes—oil and gas prices are down, so control and automation suppliers must help their end users do even more for even less. This theme isn’t new, but I’ve noticed that all the presentations focused almost exclusively on bad news from upstream, and seemed to ignore what has to be plenty of good news, opportunities and projects going on downstream. Low fuel and energy costs must be hugely beneficial to operations and margins in chemical, power generation, mining, pharmaceuticals, plastics, pulp and paper, food and beverage and other process industries, but I sure haven’t heard anyone tell me about them.

Maybe they don’t want to brag, or maybe the downstreamers are improving bottom lines, but not launching many new projects. Perhaps it’s like the airlines, which must be grooving on historically low jet fuel prices, but don’t seem to be passing on the savings to us travelers.     

[pullquote]Or maybe it’s just easier to complain. I remember $4-per-gallon fuel and its price equivalents causing all kinds of insurmountable problems a few years ago, and now $2-per-gallon prices are causing similar paralysis with different excuses. It’s no joke that oil and gas prices are down, as you can see from this issue’s “Positioned for recovery” Control/ARC Automation Top 50 cover article, which found that worldwide automation supplier revenues were down 10% during 2014-15, while their North American counterparts were down 7% for the same period. So what to do?

I know we’re all “in business to make money,” but I’d bet that focusing so hard on short-term revenues, dividends and satisfying analysts probably makes it hard for end users and suppliers alike to concentrate on new innovations, redesign applications and process control systems, and retool for new applications—let alone commit to investing in them long-term. The same goes for process safety and cybersecurity, which eat money and can’t easily show their value on a balance sheet. So why bother?

We all know the answer to that one, too. “It takes money to make money,” and sometimes investments must be made or prices must be paid when circumstances, economics and technologies change. Sure, it’s easier to remain delicately balanced, hope we don’t have to alter comfortable routines, deny that any changes are occurring, and wriggle, kick and scream when they push in. History indicates the U.S. automobile and other industries had a hard time converting to airplanes and munitions during World War II—as well as switching back afterwards—but it was crucial that they did it.      

Now, we’re adapting from too little fossil fuels to too much, not to mention coping with emerging alternate power sources. I’m not even going to mention the Industrial Internet of Things, big data or virtual/cloud computing. We know they’re there—just like safety and security—and actually we do know much of what to do.  

We just have to stop talking, get out of that chair, and keep participating and pushing until we get something new and useful done. Need a role model? As if on cue, Kenneth Bone, an Illinois coal plant operator in a red sweater, got up at the second U.S. presidential debate on Oct. 9. and asked the candidates how their energy policies will meet the nation’s needs, remain environmentally friendly and minimize layoffs. Finally, a process industry voice shows up with a specific, refreshing question in prime time. I can’t remember if he got any answers, but I know he’ll have to keep asking. My new hero. He’s on YouTube, too. Oh, and please don’t neglect to vote.

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About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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