Automation's Future

Is there such a thing as an "automation industry?"

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I once referred to such a thing in an essay, and people immediately responded, "Oh, really?" Well, we have a number of companies that develop, manufacture and sell products and services in what could be called automation. There are magazines that cover those companies, products and applications in the "real world." And certainly, there are buyers and implementers of those products and services who read the magazines that cover the space.

But Jim Pinto in his column this month (see "www.automationworld.com/columns-7252") calls the automation industry a niche composed of niche businesses. I'm not sure what we're a niche of. Perhaps the technology industry? Serial entrepreneur and current Chief Technology Officer and Co-founder of Burning Sky Software, Rick Bullotta, called manufacturing a network of networks in his recent keynote address to the MESA International North American Conference on June 23 in Dearborn, Mich. A niche of a niche…or a network of networks—probably within a network itself.

Another factor is that there is no industry association. The packaging industry has the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI). This organization promotes training and its annual Pack Expo trade show. There is no trade show that targets only automation. Instead, automation is a subset of many trade shows. Ah, but you say, what about the International Society of Automation? But it is an individual member organization. Many in leadership are academics who neither purchase nor implement automation. And it has no longstanding relationship with suppliers. Now, it doesn't even have a trade show—only a smallish conference designed to generate a little buzz.

Next, let's consider the people. One reason we broadened the circulation of Automation World when we started in 2003 was because we saw more people within manufacturing having a say—and even buying authority—over automation products and projects. So while we reach a lot of engineers who do control engineering whatever their actual title may be, we also speak to managers, information systems professionals, executives, operations and maintenance, too. But that begs the question, whatever happened to control engineers?

Peter Martin, author, thinker and a Vice President at Invensys Operations Management, and I chatted for a while at the MESA International gathering. He is pondering that question. He thinks that engineers have been trying to replace operators with automation, but that in many ways, they have been replacing themselves. In my experience, I've seen operations try to replace engineers. They consider them ivory tower mathematicians, not aware of the real world. As operations gains internal strength, control engineers often can't justify their existence. So I agree with Martin as we each approach the situation from differing perspectives.

Innovation

What's to be done? Regarding the industry as a whole, I've been looking for the sources of innovation. Often, innovation comes from small companies founded on a dream of technological advancement. Sometimes, the companies grow, and sometimes they are acquired. My article in this issue of Automation World (see www.automationworld.com/feature-7257) deals with new software tools that have the power to help manufacturing operations improve. Some of these tools came from small companies that were acquired by large companies and have been integrated well—for example, Bullotta's Lighthammer acquired by SAP, and Incuity acquired by Rockwell Automation. I thought wireless technologies would offer far more vibrancy and entrepreneurship than has happened so far. But perhaps the mobility part, borrowed from cell phone and tablet manufacturers, will play a role.

And the engineer? Martin thinks they need to just look for the next control problem. It's not PIDs (using the mathematics of proportional, integrals and differentials to control outputs). That's been done. The next control loop includes profitability, sustainability, energy. Let's develop the next control loop and reinvigorate the control engineer. 

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