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ISA Identity Crisis

Although strongly supported by the ISA executive board, the proposed name change from “Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society” to “International Society of Automation” was not approved during the October  ’07 meeting of Society delegates.

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Requiring a two-thirds majority, the motion came up just a few votes short.

The discussion was interesting. ISA leadership sees clearly how the Society must expand beyond instrumentation in order to grow. But current members, mostly with instrumentation backgrounds, don’t really want to become a small part of a different Society. And therein lies the rub.

Many members did not recognize that “instrumentation” is indeed an important part of the broader term “automation.” In my view, instrumentation, sensors, control valves, control systems, manufacturing execution systems, networking and communications in the plant and on the factory floor, are all part of the disciplines of automation. The key will be to convince current membership that the change
is necessary.

Since its inception in 1945, ISA was “Instrument Society of America.” Some felt that the name change in 2000, which eliminated “America” from the name was sufficiently international. Indeed, there are some members who think that ISA should focus on domestic development rather than fritter away resources (like free standards downloads) to encourage foreign membership. This was not a good signal to international members who already consider ISA too USA-centric. In a global market environment, my own view is that international growth is vital to the future success of ISA.

The executive board was left furiously locking the stable door after it was too late. There seems very little doubt that the motion will carry next year.

The issue does point to what is perhaps ISA’s biggest problem. It has always been an instrumentation society, as evidenced by most of the exhibits and exhibitors at the recent ISA Expo 2007 in Houston. They all showed primarily instrumentation products. In the glory days of past exhibitions, all the major companies had giant booths that demonstrated massive systems. But the days of big booths are over. Besides, networking and software demonstrations take one-on-one focus, which doesn’t suit exhibition environments.

The truth is that without the wholehearted support of the major automation players, big shows are doomed. The majors have discovered that privately sponsored user groups are clearly more cost effective—they achieve the undivided attention of current and potential customers. Attendance at recent large-vendor user-group meetings has been several thousand, compared with an estimated 8,500 attendees (12,000 including exhibitors) at ISA Expo 2007.

Show declines

Attendance at central exhibitions is declining because in the age of tortuous air-travel and wide access to information on the Internet, few want to travel to distant locations for an “exhibition.” But ISA leadership recognizes this and is working to change the value proposition. Future ISA shows will help maintain the learning process by providing multiple opportunities to gather knowledge quickly and effectively. Also, they’ll provide unique opportunities to share user experiences and make new industry contacts. The objective is to convince companies that think that they can’t afford to send employees that they cannot afford not to.

The renewed ISA dynamism under the leadership of Executive Director Pat Gouhin and a strongly motivated executive board is already getting good results. The annual ISA Expo is the only real exhibition of its kind in North America. If all the major suppliers participated, they could make the event fly, because it’s the best thing going. Here’s the exhibition conundrum: If more people went, more people would go.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. You can e-mail him at: Or review his prognostications and predictions on his Web site:

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