Viewing System Integration From the Inside

Dec. 4, 2017
A collection of thoughts from system integrators about the state of automation and controls in manufacturing, along with some advice about how to get where you’re going.

I asked my Peer Groupies a few questions about their views of our industry looking from the inside out. Here’s what they said.

Of all the issues facing the automation and controls industry today, workforce issues are the biggest concern. System integrators are aging; there is a lack of interest in young folks; training those who do enter the field is costly; and gaining experience, which is invaluable, takes decades. Then there are the technology challenges—anywhere from legacy equipment (young techies turn their noses up at it) and connecting old and new devices to deciding which technologies to apply, such as cloud, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Big Data and so on. I’m exhausted just typing them! And for those who are generalists, many projects are one-offs, so a miscalculation during quoting or poor project execution is a death sentence.

As for the future of the automation and controls industry, IIoT is big. Big Data in the cloud is bigger. Software as a service (SaaS) is no longer just a fun acronym. Instant information on your mobile device will be a given. Modernizing legacy equipment and wireless connectivity will harvest data like never before. Control systems will be more sophisticated with simplified interfaces requiring some kind of networking infrastructure. More leased systems. Migration from industrial computers to the next platform.

Now for some “back to the future” thoughts on what you could never have imagined for control system integration back then that is happening now. The most direct answer? We are still working! It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Every technological advance has had “experts” saying that the software is getting easier; anybody can program it. Yet the opposite seems to be occurring. Controlling a device has definitely become easier. But systems as a whole are getting more complex. Controllers and instruments are expected to tie in with historians, reports, upstream/downstream equipment, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), downtime reporting with reason codes, recipe management and batching, and so forth. Powerful and inexpensive processors with low-cost interconnections (i.e., Ethernet-based) are allowing some amazingly complex automation systems. Ethernet on the factory floor? You must be kidding. Self-tuning PID loops in programmable logic controllers (PLCs). Connection to open and public networks—Internet. Cloud servers—where’s the computer? Autonomous devices and drones—who’s driving that thing?

If you could know then what you know now… Opinions vary about what folks might do differently if they had it to do over again, but in first place is learning as much about business as was learned about technology. An MBA, or at least business management courses, can make the difference between success and failure. Document business processes. Hire business consultants sooner. Employ checklists, not complicated procedures. Living a balanced life, getting outdoors, time with family, involvement in community and church—all these things make us better business people, parents, spouses and friends. Enjoy the automation and controls ride and never get tired of learning. Being more product-focused and less focused on services might have been good. Requiring a proven track record before using a product for the first time is wise.

Some advice for those just starting in the industry: Nurture in-person relationships and don’t rely so much on casual text messages and emails. Not everyone communicates the same, so voice messages are OK. It’s OK to be a strong generalist. Too many people work in silos, giving them narrow experience—like having controller software experience but no understanding of hardware. Learn cloud tools and machine learning.

There are many misconceptions about the automation and controls industry. Some popular myths are that it’s easy, it’s dirty and antiquated, and we take jobs away from people in manufacturing. The truth is that automation and controls are keeping our manufacturing industries competitive and in business. Automation in manufacturing does as much good for society as ATMs and E-ZPass, other examples of automation.

Robert Lowe is co-founder and CEO of Loman Control Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). Please see Loman’s profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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