Yet, when the cost-cutting finance people and C-level executives decide that they need to “slim down” an organization, who is it who are among the first to go? Engineers. Why is this so? Peter Martin, an Invensys Operations Management vice president, author and industry thought leader, says it’s primarily because we can’t explain what engineers do in financial terms.
The focus of Automation World since our beginning has been to emphasize the financial results of automation implementation—the results of good engineering, if you will. The challenge is that few companies are willing to talk about their implementations and the financial results they have achieved. But for those who will talk, we have eight years of stories about successful results.
A corollary focus to gaining financial advantage from automation is the thesis that automation products alone do not guarantee success. Empowered people create manufacturing success through intelligent application of automation products and strategies. A consistent theme of OpsManage ’11, the user conference of Invensys Operations Management held Nov. 8-10, was empowering people—how the products it develops gives people the power to make a difference in manufacturing and production. Similarly, Emerson Process Management emphasized during its Global Users Exchange Oct. 24-28 its focus to include how humans use the products as a criteria for final release.
One of the first interviews I did for the debut issue of Automation World was with a Lean Manufacturing consultant. When I reached him, he said, “Tell me why a magazine about automation would be interested in Lean. We are opposed to each other.” My reply was there are things humans do well and things automation does well, and the trick is to get the mix right. He was probably thinking only about discrete product assembly. I was thinking the big picture. Renee Robbins Bassett found a range of engineers and plant managers who know today that Lean supports automation by supporting and empowering the people who use it (p. 26).
There is a value that humans bring to the table that automation cannot—innovation. We are about to send off to retirement a generation of innovative engineers who brought us programmable controllers, distributed control systems, digital instrumentation and fieldbuses. John Berra has been in the thick of all that innovation. He ponders innovation in his column this month (p. 54). Are we nearing the end of an innovation cycle in our industry?
Analyst firm Frost & Sullivan thinks so. In a report just released, it states, “The field of industrial automation (IA) is at a cross roads. All major IA vendors acknowledge that the automation and control solutions (ACS) product portfolio is nearing saturation, either directly or indirectly. A major trend underlining this development is the narrowing product definition between individual ACS products, in particular the programmable logic controllers (PLC) and distributed control system (DCS) product line.”
The author, Senior Research Analyst Karthik Sundaram, continued in his report, “In the coming years, the emphasis on the IA product portfolio is likely to diminish. In contrast, the need for globalized service support, coupled with cost factors, is expected to gain significant momentum.”
I think that Sundaram is a little naive about the convergence of DCS and PLC. There are significant differences in how they are applied. But note his central argument that innovation is dead in industrial automation and that we will become a service industry. Certainly we are not seeing the burst of innovation we witnessed in the 1980s. Or, are we? Certainly software has undergone—and is still undergoing—significant improvement. Modeling of process and business events is just gaining traction. And who knows what the next generation of engineers will do? It could be exciting. Hope I’m around to see some of it.
Gary Mintchell, email@example.com, is Editor In Chief of Automation World.