- By Jack Smith
- August 30, 2023
- The Final Say
Imagine a 9-year-old lad making a crystal radio set with his dad, an electrical engineer at Allen-Bradley for more than 30 years. Nearly half a century later, that lad is looking back on a successful technical career and looking forward to retirement. Through it all, Bill Lydon’s fascination with all things technical, especially automation and controls, remains as strong as ever.
“I learned basic electronics by reading my father’s copy of the American Radio Relay League Handbook,” he says. This foundational text launched Bill down a path that included being the first building automation product manager at Johnson Controls, the North American director of PLCopen, and the editor of ISA’s InTech magazine. The InTech masthead will list Bill as Editor Emeritus, but the term barely captures the essence of this industry expert, writer, editor, consultant, and commentator, and his distinguished 40-year career.
From his InTech “Final Say” columns to his annual Industrial Automation & Control Trends Reports and countless feature articles in between, Bill has been a beacon helping automation and control engineers do their jobs better. In this year’s trends report (his eighth), he writes: “The world of manufacturing is an exciting, ever-changing landscape that is continually being driven to new heights of productivity, efficiency, and quality through the application of innovative technology.” Bill has reported on changes, highlighted innovations, asked tough questions, told stories, and shared advice—and the automation and control industry is better for it.
Bill first was involved with ISA starting In 1975. He attended a three-day ISA short course roadshow in Milwaukee on the application of microprocessors for controls, which he said, “provided an excellent education and insight on the application of microprocessors for controls and automation.” He joined ISA after that and over the years volunteered as a conference paper reviewer and presenter at the annual ISA Expo tradeshows.
Bill’s engineering journey
After attending Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) Bill’s first “real” engineering position was at Sundstrand Machine Tool. He was part of a team developing new products for the direct computer control of machine tools. “Sundstrand was really pushing the technology, and this was a serious application of real-time computing for controls,” he explained. “I learned about the application of computer-driven servo systems and closed-loop controls using encoders and resolvers.”
After Sundstrand, in 1973, Bill began working for Johnson Controls after learning that the company was just beginning to apply minicomputers to building controls. “They showed me a room full of high-performance minicomputers in the development group and I was sold. Let me play in this sandbox!” he exclaimed. “Their first building automation system [BAS] was launched based on these technologies and included a 1-kb-per-second token loop over coax communicating with remote data acquisition and control units.”
After 13 years at Johnson Controls, Bill was cofounder and president of an industrial control software company, Event Technologies Inc. ETI had a vision of creating automation and links from the plant floor to the front office without the need for complex programming. Everything would be accomplished with simple visual programming.
“We developed an object-oriented software architecture with visual programming for controls and automation before Windows was available, running on UNIX-based platforms. Later the software was migrated to Windows 3.1,” Bill explained. “Many major controls users told me the big benefit of the soft control initiatives was to force PLC companies to lower prices and add functions.”
Subsequently, Bill had positions at RTP Corporation working with nuclear-certified control and safety systems and at WAGO as a product manager for controls and input/ output (I/O) hardware.
In 2003, Bill became an independent consultant in the automation industry working on projects and advising companies on strategy, applications, and technology. He has been doing this ever since.
Bill’s ‘second’ career
“In 2008 at the annual ARC Orlando conference, [Automation.com Director] Rick Zabel asked me if I’d be interested in covering and writing about an event for Automation.com. I said I’d give it a try. I liked doing it and [a writing career] just grew organically,” Bill said. In 2010, ISA needed an editor for InTech magazine, and he joined the team.
Writing about this industry is, for some like Bill, a natural extension of the discussions, group facilitating, and creative problem-solving involved in being an automation professional or technical product manager. “If I can inspire other technical people to become writers and contributors to Automation. com and InTech, and the industry at large, I would like that,” added Bill, who said he thinks his affinity for writing came from his mother “who grew up on a farm and taught in a one-room schoolhouse before subsequently moving to the city and marrying my dad. I had a teacher before I could talk.”
What’s next for Bill
In addition to his engineering and editorial careers, Bill has been involved with PLCopen for more than 19 years. PLCopen is a non-profit industry organization developing and setting control software standards based on the IEC 61131-3 standard. He plans to continue his work there and engage in select consulting projects and advisory boards. He also looks forward to being more involved with his family, including five grandchildren.
Bill will be a special projects contributor to ISA publications and will continue sharing his thoughts on LinkedIn. Automation.com and InTech magazine have greatly benefitted from Bill’s enthusiasm and experience over the years, and we are happy we still get to work with him. I’ll be taking over his column slot in InTech but do not pretend to fill his shoes. I and so many others have learned a lot from you, Bill. Whatever you decide to do, we wish you the best!
We want to hear from you! Please send us your comments and questions about this topic to InTechmagazine@isa.org.