The SetPoint: Noble But Unappreciated

Feb. 1, 2011
I have worked in the automation industry for 41 years, including time as an engineer for a chemical company and a contractor, before joining Emerson. These 41 years have given me a deep appreciation for what automation engineers do, but they have also illuminated one of the most perplexing questions about our profession.

Why are automation engineers the least known and most underappreciated engineers in their companies? I have often called our profession a noble profession. Our work demands the broadest skill set of any engineering discipline—it requires knowledge of chemical processes, mechanical, electrical, electronics, software, networks and IT (information technology). In a typical project, the automation amounts to less than 10 percent of the total cost, yet it has the most impact on the performance of the process. All of the best equipment and process designs are rendered helpless if the automation doesn’t work. Conversely, when the automation is done brilliantly, the operation sings. So why do we labor in obscurity?

Here are a few reasons:

>> There are very few engineering schools that offer degrees that relate directly to automation—most of us study something else first.

>> When the average person thinks about technology, they think about Microsoft and Apple, not feedback control loops.

>> As a profession, we are terrible at proving our value.

>> As an industry, we have become too conservative, preferring to coax more years out of an automation system that is already 20 years old rather than take advantage of today’s technology.

Speak about value

All of us need to get on the stump to raise awareness of what we do. The targets here are the management of our companies. To raise awareness, we need to talk the language of our targets. For company management, this means showing a financial return. Get with someone from your accounting group and learn how the company makes decisions. Do your homework on the economic value your work creates. This is not about bits and bytes—it is about running the plant with lower energy, lower emissions, greater safety and more throughput. This is the value we deliver.

I once met with the head of one of the largest refineries in the world. His first words were, "I think all automation projects have zero ROI (return on investment)." While this may be extreme, my experience tells me that there are more of these kinds of leaders than there are true believers in automation. Whose fault is that? Ours. We have huge financial value, but we seek the comfort zone of technology and don’t venture into the business justification of what we do.

Because we haven’t done a good job proving our value, we have a tough time getting our companies to innovate. The typical pattern is just to keep things running. The true innovators in our industry are always trying small experiments to improve things. These are not expensive and they yield measurable results. These "small victories" build credibility for the value of automation.

We can all do something to show the world the value we bring.

John Berra, [email protected], recently retired as Chariman of Emerson Process Management, Austin, Texas.

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