Secret Agent Man

There could be agents lurking in your software someday. I’m not thinking about “a man who lives a life of danger” extolled by Johnny Rivers’ theme song for a 1960s TV series about Cold War spies.

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Rather, more mundane but perhaps much more powerful, autonomous agents as pieces of code in your software have the potential to make sense out of the flood of data about to be unleashed from your machines and processes.

This thought begins with the focus of this issue, as well as a recurring topic in Automation World since we began—networking. This technology has developed and matured over the past few years to the point that it is an essential component of any automation strategy. Excitement in the industry is building for the potential of wireless networking in all its manifestations. John Berra, president and chief executive of Emerson Process Management, has expressed his belief to me several times that wireless sensor networks have game-changing potential about the way our process plants are run.

Wes Iversen discusses in this issue how wireless networking holds the promise of unlocking vast amounts of process data hidden away in pre-network instruments and devices (see Stranded Data: Wireless is the Key). Wireless networking technologies also have the potential to free operators and technicians to be in touch with their processes even while visiting a remote plant location.

Perhaps even more interesting is the unleashing of the best sensors in the plant—humans. Wonderware’s Steve Garbrecht proposed that idea to me in a conversation recently. Most of the people in a plant do not use computers with a human-machine interface (HMI) application. What if people who are out observing every day had a simple HMI on which incidents and observations could be communicated into the plant database?

The problem with vast amounts of data is understanding. Humans can only absorb so much, then they are overwhelmed. Likewise, control systems can be overwhelmed by data inputs. In his column this month, Jim Pinto ponders the impact of this information deluge and its impact on the future of control systems and software (see Distributed Intelligence-the New Approach). He brings up the concept of autonomous agents—intelligent, rule-based code that can analyze and filter all this information. Interestingly, in my last conversation with Rockwell Automation Chief Technology Officer Sujeet Chand, I asked what technologies he was studying that I should educate myself on. One of his replies was autonomous agents. I agree with Pinto (it does happen sometimes) that we are going to see a whole new class of applications appear before too long that contain agent-based processing.

Converging future

I also agree that the convergence of hardware and software will change the way we look at things. An example of this is National Instruments and the development of field programmable gate array (FPGA) technology. This is another one of those technologies that portend new ways of doing automation.

The challenge for automation professionals is to take to a new level our understanding and vision of what it means to do our jobs. The world doesn’t stop with the technology. The technology exists to help us toward some end—one hopes a beneficial one. A recurring comment heard at the recent Invensys Process Systems Conference was that “engineers did things because they could, but they never stopped to ask if they should.”

I think on of the most important things for us to consider is workflow. This entails the application of technology to make people and companies more efficient and effective. Our task is to understand these technologies and apply them for the benefit of all of our stakeholders—shareholders, employees, companies, ourselves, society. Then we are truly doing our job as professionals.
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