Engineers Help Weather the Storm

"Just as the tumultous chaos of a thunderstorm brings a nurturing rain that allows life to flourish, so too in human affairs times of advancement are preceded by times of disorder. Success comes to those who can weather the storm." — I Ching

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We’ve been through a big storm over the past 16 months or so, and we’re still waiting for signs that life is beginning to flourish afterward. Optimistic reports from businesses are popping up, but other statistics such as unemployment numbers are not on an upward trend, yet.

One thing for sure is that our way out of the mess created by “financial engineers” will be through the innovative hard work of “real” engineers—those people who actually create the wealth that others trade around. These are people who are Automation World readers. People who look at problems and solve them. People who look for new ways to improve productivity, safety, products and processes.

Despite many doom and gloom stories in the “popular” daily news press and television, manufacturing is not dead in the United States. In many respects, it is doing quite well. According to University of Michigan-Flint economics professor Mark J. Perry, as quoted in The Greenville (S.C.) News, productivity in manufacturing is higher than it ever was—reaching an all-time high last November. But there are potholes in the road to a fully recovered and thriving manufacturing sector.

In the January/February 2010 issue of “The Atlantic Monthly,” James Fallows writes in his essay “How America Can Rise Again,” “Everything we know about future industries and technologies suggests that they will offer ever-greater rewards to flexibility, openness, reinvention, ‘crowdsourcing,’ and all other manifestations of individuals and groups keenly attuned to their surroundings. Everything about American society should be hospitable toward those traits—and should foster them better and more richly than other societies can.”

Those of us who do control and instrumentation systems are overwhelmingly male and old. Does that necessarily lead to the conclusion that we are not innovative and flexible? Not in my experience. However, we would do well to devote our remaining years and our early retirement working with young people of both genders and diverse backgrounds to get them interested in the profession of manufacturing and engineering. We know that having more points of view generates more good ideas.

Increase awareness

I sometimes wonder if I devote too much time to thinking about ISA—the International Society of Automation. Jim Pinto and I have been conversing together and with a number of other people who care deeply about the association and are worried about its direction—which  somewhat resembles a nosedive. Pinto’s column (see www.automationworld.com/columns-6557) reflects some of the ideas we’ve discussed. Author Tim Gallwey once noted, “Before you try to change something, increase your awareness of it.” We’ve been trying to do just that, because we think ISA could be a primary vehicle for promoting engineering, standards and best practices.

ISA created the Automation Federation as an uber-association. That didn’t work out, but it assumed a second life as a political lobbying organization. I don’t think it’s a valuable use of time and energy prowling the halls of Congress unless you have bank vaults full of cash to hand out. But I just saw a news release that AF has partnered with the Boy Scouts and the FIRST Robotics Competition to promote engineering. That’s what I call a good use of time and energy. The challenge is clear. We must promote engineering and science to a diverse group of young people, open our minds to new ideas and ways of thinking, and then roll up our sleeves and undo the work of pseudo-engineers with real productive wealth building.

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