08 January 2001
2001: Worries galore, great toys
by Bob Felton
Change, change, change the only sure thing
Measurement and control engineers will spend much of 2001 negotiating their way through a confluence of rapidly advancing technology, intensely competitive management, distrusting regulators, and a new administration in Washington.
For starters, plant engineers will have to pay attention to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's issuance of final ergonomics rules on 14 November. The law takes effect 16 January 2001, and all of the nation's manufacturers will have to be in compliance by October. The rules require that manufacturers take steps to reduce musculoskeletal (MSD) hazards, and the OSHA-prepared Q&A section answers, "What kinds of controls must I use to reduce MSD hazards?" as follows:
For each problem job, you must use feasible engineering, work practice or administrative controls, or any combination of them, to reduce MSD hazards in the job. Where feasible, engineering controls are the preferred method of control.
Under the microscope
Engineers can look forward to scrutinizing every inch of their production lines during the coming year and reconfiguring some of them, along with the associated process controls. They'll proceed to that work against a backdrop of seismic philosophical and technological change.
For example, Victor Maggioli, president of Feltronics Corp. and chairman of ISA Committee SP84, predicted in the course of his plenary address at ISA EXPO/2000 that merging safety and instrumentation systems might become commonósomething that is at least discouraged, and occasionally prohibited, by virtually all current design standards. If Maggioli is correct and companies searching for competitive advantage decide to combine process and safety controls to save money, engineers will find themselves under pressure to justify separated systems and perhaps forced to integrate systems with fundamentally different design assumptions into a coherent, working whole. That's tough enough, but Maggioli further predicted that engineers would continue to confront downsizing and outsourcing, as well as the corresponding loss within companies of the rationale guiding incremental designs and decision-making.
The breakneck evolution of software and instruments offers engineers a stupefying range of possibilities and hard decisions. It's possible right now, for instance, to instrument a process so it sends an e-mail alert to your cellular telephone or hand computer if something goes wrong, updates a Web page with regular status reports, and even waits for you to connect via a browser and tell the plant what to do. Even better, thanks to the open standards philosophy that drives the Internet, engineers are steadily less reliant on any particular vendor: The plug-and-play design principles that liberated early PC owners from the aggravation of configuring each discrete application for the system's unique hardware are doing much the same for plant engineers.
This is great for engineers designing new systems but stands to cause headaches for engineers who have to maintain, upgrade, or extend existing systems. Like early hackers with beloved MS-DOS applications that got left behind when the world went to Windows, some engineers are going to find themselves forced by small events into expensive and time-consuming reengineering of systems they're generally satisfied with.
Nor are control hardware and software decisions as easy as selecting among like items differentiated only by price and local nuances such as service. There are open communications standards, and manufacturers claim to employ them, but not every vendor implements them the same way. The ANSI standard for the C programming language, for instance, allows compiler vendors to decide for themselves how to implement certain standard functions, with the result that C code that complies with the standard produces different output according to the compiler used to produce the executable file.
Further, because adoption of a common set of communications protocols forces companies to distinguish themselves from their competitors by marketing strategies such as branding, it's a safe bet that proprietary features will begin showing up in "open" hardware and software. Microsoft has added features to Java and the Explorer browser until, though ostensibly the cross-platform champ, only Microsoft tools will compile Java code that works reliably with the browser while exploiting its full capability. There's nothing wrong with thatóit's the way a free market is supposed to workóbut a shakeout is inevitable when so many hardware and software vendors sell products that differ in little more than the packaging. Be wary of added-on goodies.
How secure are you?
Be wary, too, of potential security leaks associated with all the slick new Internet-based communications choices. Hackers have proved themselves truly ingenious when it comes to picking software locks. Microsoft, whose Internet Explorer Web browser is used by millions and offers onboard security for online transactions, was recently obliged to acknowledge that hackers had broken past its own firewalls and moseyed through its source code for applications now under development. The federal government will probably adopt the Rijndael encryption algorithm for securing data on its computers sometime next year, replacing the obsolete data encryption standard (DES) and interim triple-DES algorithms. But just because it's government approved doesn't mean it's right for you; government computers are routinely penetrated by hackers, and the National Security Agency isn't known for encouraging use of encryption software it can't decrypt.
To regulatory issues and the problem of synchronizing hardware and software on the plant floor, add the unsettled state of enterprisewide applicationsóthose never-quite-finished database applications that are supposed to connect everything between, and including, the plant floor and the boardroom. Industry is tending toward flat models that eliminate middle layers and push everything from parts manufacturing to plant engineering to personnel management downward and outwardóbut most of those software programs are based on vertical models. The Internet, open standards, and all the talk of e-business and online exchanges caught those application vendors flat-footed, and they haven't really caught up. Hardware and software and everything they connect to are, and will remain, wildly roiled during the coming year. Dithering at grand system architectures is great entertainment but probably won't be productive because the playing field is changing faster than planners can sketch new flow charts. The sine qua non of high-performance engineering groups will be close, friendly cooperation with the computerheads and mutual willingness to adopt local, small-bore solutions to information sharing problems.
Engineers may find themselves dealing, too, with the fallout of 2000's best-known product recall. The Ford/Firestone tire recall reigned over newspaper headlines during the latter half of last year (excepting that chad nauseum fracas in the Sunshine State) and culminated in passage on 1 November of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. The law commands automakers to notify the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration if foreign recalls are launched or if they have reports of significant problems that have not yet resulted in a recall but may lead to one. It also authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to require insurance companies to provide aggregate claims information to the department. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater promptly issued a press release promising, "We will move quickly to make use of the new authority that TREAD gives us."
Though the new law directly affects only automobile manufacturers, it arches over thousands of their suppliers. Further, following widely publicized revelations of inadequate testing requirements and monitoring on its part, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has promised to run a more shipshape operation and issue new regulations for safety certification of a broad range of automobile-related products. Because any new safety-related statutes or regulations enacted by the federal government or the states will probably require more stringent reporting of potential defects or foreign recalls for all manufactured goods, the most likely net result is that product safety and reporting requirements will ratchet tighter.
Great new toys
Though plant engineers will face new regulatory pressures, management more driven than ever to pare costs, and a bewildering array of software and hardware architectures and strategies, there'll be compensations: The new toys are extremely cool.
For starters, wireless is everywhereówireless on the plant floor; wireless data seeking out your cell phone, pager and hand computer; wireless querying about the health of your production lines; wireless extraction of data from company databases on your way to meetings. The novelties of 20 years ago have become the commonplace tools of everyday life, and then some; devices that support instantaneous voice and data communications practically anywhere are available at reasonable cost to anybody who wants one. Your production line can call you and let you know it's not well. A technician or engineer can walk through a plant carrying a pocket computer and read a host of controls, while visually observing the associated processes, in minutes.
The readings are preserved more accurately than if recorded with a pencil stub, and the data can be analyzed and posted to a Web page in, essentially, real time. The company management two countries distant can be viewing that page before the person who recorded the underlying data even gets back to his desk. If the data compels a response, technology now available permits an authorized person to phone the production line using a cell phone situated nearly anywhere and start flipping switches.
It would be a mistake to think of wireless as something that only adds to the digital din. Thanks to wireless technology, engineers can look forward to tools that allow them to understand what's happening in their plants with an unprecedented degree of confidence. It's now possible, for example, to use wireless devices to measure and report events happening in environments too caustic or hot for wire-tethered devices. In remarks following his plenary address at ISA EXPO/2000, Maggioli acknowledged that wireless's importance will grow: "That's an issue we have not discussed and we will have to discuss." H. Britton Sanderford, president of Axonn Corp. and the show's keynote speaker, offered a straightforward reason: Wireless gets the information in on time.
NASA has pioneered advances in crystal-growing technology that make possible silicon-based pressure sensors that are accurate at temperatures greater than 600į. They've also dreamed up a way to grow crystal faces so smooth that the long-awaited blue laser might finally become affordable; when that happens, measurements and optical transmission of data will take a huge leap forward, and everything will speed up again.
Engineers can no longer spend their careers talking only to other engineers about developments within their narrow field. Thanks to computers and the Internet, knowledge and technological advances are leapfrogging boundaries that only a decade ago would have seemed unimaginable.
Engineers will continue to see improbable, or at least not always intuitively obvious, linkages and adaptations that work huge changes in the philosophy underlying our work and the tools we do it with.
Bob Felton is technical editor for InTech.