Put Me In, Coach

July 1, 2006
Editor in Chief Gary Mintchell says: Process control design and programming software also is now constructed to capture current knowledge and embed it in object libraries and algorithms.

“Centerfield,” John Fogerty’s song about baseball, says it all. “Oh put me in, coach. I’m ready to play today.”

There are many fear-mongers in the manufacturing and process control trade press right now raising the “how are we going to replace all the retiring engineers over the next few years?” storm warning siren. The hand-wringing is over the fact that the huge “baby boom” generation is about to retire. And with them will go the process control knowledge of a lifetime of experience. “So how are we going to survive?” ask these people.

Let’s look at building the automation team as being much the same as the way a coach builds a sports team. I live among many fanatic Ohio State University football fans. A few years ago, the school had a pretty good team. It graduated a number of seniors, a fair number of whom made it to the next level of the National Football League. So, what was to become of the team? Was it all over for the coach and school, not to mention the die-hard fans?

Actually, the coach had been recruiting wisely to fill the anticipated holes. Then he made sure that each recruit was trained for his role. Then he put them in and allowed them to play. A national championship ensued. Every high school and college coach in every sport faces the same problem every year. They deal with it; so should we in manufacturing.

Recruit and train

Our universities are still graduating engineers. Experienced engineers have been retiring constantly every year, but there have been replacements that are stepping up and asking to be “put in.” That will not change. But the recruits still must be trained in the processes and company procedures. So, a good manager/coach must continually feed the see-the-hole, recruit and train cycle.

Fortunately, there is a lot of training help these days, and it’s gaining momentum with every increasing technology advance. Simulation tools and software, most likely a derivative of computer game technology, has become a valuable tool for training operators. It’s a great way to capture current knowledge, too, and preserve it to be handed down to the next generation of operators. Process control design and programming software also is now constructed to capture current knowledge and embed it in object libraries and algorithms.

I spent much of the spring attending technology provider user group meetings. There is sort of a circular learning that goes on at these events. Suppliers train customers on technology advances and new products. On the other hand, customers “train” the suppliers on what they are doing with the technology and what they need to succeed in the future. I don’t think I’ve seen one of these conferences where company management isn’t mingling with users in the hallways and meeting with them in private meetings, either singly or as part of advisory boards, as they try to learn what customers need. This is another way of perpetuating knowledge.

Other resources that continue to thrive—at least from the education point of view—are professional organizations. Both the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA) and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) provide myriad opportunities for education. Wise managers/coaches will make these tools available to their players.

Automation World also contributes to this training through our articles, Webcasts and Forums. Check out Wes Iversen’s article on the current state of industrial training and Rob Spiegel’s article on collaboration tools—another great knowledge sharing technology.

A final thought. Don’t write to me about OSU. I didn’t go there and I’m not a fan. It’s just a good example.

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