1 January 2006

Automation Outlook 2006

Cyber security breaches threaten, smarter factories and processes emerge, consulting business booms, and engineering talent base shrinks

By Bob Felton

Engineers who began their careers 25 or more years ago have witnessed, benefited from, and contributed mightily to the greatest technological leap forward in history. And the wonders will continue during the coming year. But those engineers who tracked into management may scarcely notice them, spending the year feeling, instead, as if they're tip-toeing through a clutch of just hatched rattlesnakes.


  • Automation industry executives place worldwide growth in 2005 in the neighborhood of 5%, and expect to see similar growth in 2006.
  • Next-generation plants will be smaller and more mobile.
  • Experts agree tactical strikes against vital public infrastructures prior to physical attacks is possible and perhaps likely.
  • U.S. students earning science and engineering degrees continue to decline, prompting analysts to predict a coming crisis of talent.

Automation industry executives place worldwide growth in 2005 in the neighborhood of 5%, a substantial improvement over the past several years, and expect to see similar overall growth in 2006. Yet they note significant disparities among market sectors and geographical regions and are carefully watching several worrisome trends.

From the kitchen table to the neighborhood merchant, from corporate boardrooms to the White House cabinet room, the cost of energy is the ever-present concern. Have the world's economies and industries at last grown so interdependent that-as when the failure of an obscure, overextended state bank triggered cascading failures that launched the Great Depression-a business failure here, or storm there, or terrorist attack elsewhere, might be felt worldwide?

"High energy prices will eventually put a damper on world economies," said Emerson Process Management President John Berra. He added he doesn't think it's inevitable, and the worry shouldn't be overblown. "I'm optimistic about the next two-to-three years."

Consulting thrives on energy cost hikes

Industry's response to the problem of increasing energy costs has been a boon to automation firms. In the U.S., Emerson Process Management and Honeywell are enjoying rapid growth of their consulting services and a nice uptick in product sales, as companies search for ways to squeeze more profit from their existing industrial infrastructure, turning to tactics that range from improved instrumentation to intelligent, finely tuned controls and information management systems that make the decades old dream of instantaneous plant-floor-to-boardroom communication a near reality.

Both companies have found consulting is the most rapidly growing part of their North American business, with clients seeking everything from analyses of current operations and recommendations for retrofitting, to resident plant-engineering services. And both companies anticipate their consulting services will grow in importance, displacing or overtaking traditional integrators.


"What I'm finding is that engineers don't want to go into refining, or power, or semiconductors anymore. They want to go into nanotechnology or genetic engineering." -Bolick


Smaller, more mobile factories

Further, plant upgrades and new capacity are designed to run more cheaply and efficiently than ever. The era of "lights-out manufacturing" envisioned by the early proponents of robotics is quietly becoming a reality. A 2003 article in The Wall Street Journal reported, "The future of manufacturing for me is doing it whenever possible with no labor at all," said Pete Evans, the fourth generation in his family to head its 73-year-old business. By expanding lights-out manufacturing, he expected to double output in the coming two years without adding to his 49-person workforce.

Though streamlining, upgrading, and increasing efficiencies is the industrial trend in the mature economies, new industrial capacity is growing rapidly in the emerging economies, with construction of new factories underway throughout China, India, the Middle East, western Africa, and South America.

The model for next-generation plant capacity is also undergoing significant changes. "Factories are going to become smaller," and more mobile, too, said industry observer and founder of San Diego-based Action Instruments Jim Pinto. "When there's no more gold, or no more coal, or whatever resource you're using, you don't need the factory to be there. So you disassemble it and move it."

Students snub science

Engineers will probably be more mobile, too, as students outside the developing nations turn their backs on careers in science and engineering. South African municipalities are currently unable to fill 40-45% of their technician and engineering positions, said Alison Lawless, a former president of the South African Institute of Civil Engineering.

American executives remain worried. Honeywell President Jack Bolick said there are areas worldwide, but especially in North America, where it's difficult to locate the engineering talent he needs. "What I'm finding is that engineers don't want to go into refining, or power, or semiconductors anymore. They want to go into nanotechnology or genetic engineering." The company is responding by consulting with retirees and codifying their knowledge in their software products, adding laid-off engineers to their own consulting staff, and contemplating a day when management of remote systems and some types of maintenance are done over the Internet.

Watching the decline in engineering enrollments, Emerson is cultivating relationships with universities worldwide and sponsoring work-study programs. "In the long run, availability of engineering talent is going to be a global issue," Berra said.

Cyber security remains vulnerable

The electronic security of manufacturing systems has already become a global issue, with more than 100 documented instances of cyber events that affected, or could have affected, process control. And because few companies willingly disclose breaches of security, experts believe the actual number is much higher.

  • In Australia, a disgruntled contractor remotely arranged the release of one million liters of raw sewage into adjoining waterways.
  • In Tempe, Ariz., an intruder gained access to the Salt River Project system, disrupting delivery of power and water to utility customers and stealing account information, including financial data.
  • Iranian hackers entered Israel Electric Corp.'s controls in 2003 and repeatedly attempted to disrupt that nation's power supply.
  • Hackers disabled vital PLCs during the Venezuelan general strike of 2002, closing that country's main port.

Most of the attacks against industrial controls prior to 2001 were committed by insiders, said Eric Byres of the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Then, he said, the preponderance of attacks started to come from the outside. Presently, 80-90% of attacks from the outside are opportunistic- the work of someone who finds the site by happenstance-and the remainder are targeted at a specific facility (for industrial espionage, for instance). Organized crime has moved into computer crime in a big way, setting up high-tech sweatshops in undeveloped nations where legions of cheap, skilled computerheads troll cyberspace looking for easily penetrated systems.

"We're still in the Wild West of Internet security," said Byres, and the complexity of manufacturing software systems, with their many portholes, makes them especially vulnerable to somebody who wants a look inside.

Most hackers, once in, will simply go looking for financial data that can be stolen, packaged, and sold. But attackers who know what they are doing can, and have, seized control of the HMI console.

Byres said the majority of manufacturing systems remain vulnerable. "We're quite immature in this field," he said, adding effective system security must be embedded into corporate culture, like safety. "This isn't a diet," he said. "It's a lifestyle change."

ISA released the latest draft of its proposed electronic security standard, ISA-99.00.01, Manufacturing and Control Systems Security, in October 2005. Ambitious in scope, it aims to address manufacturing and control systems whose compromise could result in any or all of the following situations:

  • Endangerment of public or employee safety
  • Loss of public confidence
  • Violation of regulatory requirements
  • Loss of proprietary or confidential information
  • Economic loss
  • Impact on national security

The concept of manufacturing and control systems electronic security is applied in the broadest possible sense, encompassing all types of plants, facilities, and systems in all industries. Manufacturing and control systems include, but are not limited to:

  • Hardware and software systems such as DCS, PLC, SCADA, networked electronic sensing, and monitoring and diagnostic systems
  • Associated internal, human, network, or machine interfaces used to provide control, safety, and manufacturing operations functionality to continuous, batch, discrete, and other processes

The standard is expected to include four parts; the first two are slated for release in mid-2006. Few experts worry about the garish scenarios proposed a few years ago in which cyber terrorists actually modified plant operations and caused defects to be built into products, but there is widespread agreement that tactical strikes against vital public infrastructure prior to physical attacks is a possibility or even a likelihood.

Since 11 September 2001, the critical link between cyberspace and physical space has been increasingly recognized. Critical infrastructures face an increasing threat of cyber attacks in addition to physical attacks. In July 2002, NIPC reported the potential for compound cyber and physical attacks, referred to as "swarming attacks," is an emerging threat to critical infrastructures. The effects of a swarming attack, according to NIPC, include slowing or complicating the response to a physical attack. For instance, a cyber attack that disabled the water supply or the electrical system, in conjunction with a physical attack, could deny emergency services the necessary resources to manage the consequences of the physical attack-such as controlling fires, coordinating actions, and generating light.

Better systems, tools emerge

If the horizon appears crowded with vaguely-defined perils, there is also a lot to look forward to. First and foremost, instruments and the electronic ganglia that connect them are improving steadily, increasing productivity and reducing costs.

After years of hype, lights-out manufacturing is quietly becoming a reality, allowing plants to reliably increase productivity without increasing personnel, or maintain productivity levels while reducing personnel levels.

Similarly, true floor-to-boardroom communications amongst a wide range of legacy systems is taking hold. Whirlpool just completed a worldwide harmonization of disparate systems that gives users customized reports in HTML format they can access using a Web browser.

Better tools are in the pipeline, too.

The National Institute of Standards' Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory (MEL) is conducting a series of research projects that aim to ease the production of nanoproducts while improving their quality, extending their usage into areas that not so long ago were the stuff of science fiction.

In the movie Fantastic Voyage , a team of scientists is shrunk to microscopic size in order to travel through a critically ill man's bloodstream to carry out a delicate repair to his brain. That isn't going to happen, but nanotechnology and medicine are teaming up to deliver therapies almost as fantastical. According to the 2005 edition of MEL's annual report, "nanoparticle drug delivery systems (NDS) are a generic technology that is currently under intense development by the health-care community for a broad range of applications. The NDS payload may consist of not only gene-carrying DNA but, for instance, regulatory proteins that turn on or off specific cellular processes."

Mindful of the growing importance of nanotechnology throughout industry, MEL has initiated a number of programs that aim to support manufacturing. The Small Force Metrology Laboratory provides accurate force standards to researchers and manufacturers that employ micro and nanomechanical tests for product development, fabrication, and quality control. Forces from millinewtons down to nanonewtons, commonly measured in industry and academe using devices such as instrumented indentation machines and atomic force microscopes, can now be realized with traceable relative uncertainties less than 0.01% at loads near a micronewton.

Machining of small parts is about to get better, too; currently, the laboratory is investigating the feasibility of utilizing micro-level wire electrical discharge machining technology for use in creating precision components, complex geometric mechanical parts, and assemblies.

Strength in MEMs

Micro-electromechanical (MEMs) systems are also getting better. In October, Rice University researchers reported they had created "a single molecule nanocar containing a chassis, axles, and four wheels ... the first to roll on four wheels in a direction perpendicular to its axles." Its creation evidences the steady improvement of the ability to create special purpose molecules, which means manufacturers, can expect to see more application-specific materials and delicate instruments.

Even as the tools used by manufacturers improve, consumers are increasingly demanding one-of-a-kind products tailored to their specific needs. Accordingly, build-to-order, which was scarcely more than a pipedream five years ago, is today becoming the norm. Dell pioneered build-to-order, and Sony announced in August it will offer custom-built computers in Japan, including its popular VAIO model.

Integra, a maker of high-end home theater systems, said in January it, too is now taking custom orders. Kayak manufacturer Action Fish has joined the act, taking it a step further. During kayak building, customers receive updates on the construction of their wood-built kayak via a private Web site, including photographs. Customers can also receive direct e-mail and phone contact with the builder.

This doesn't mean the end of the production line, but it means greater use of standardized, interchangeable components, and some tweaking of the production line. If done properly, build-to order means greater profits; factory direct sales eliminate retailers.

Indeed, build-to-order is so pervasive it has spawned its own support industry-software developers who specialize in creating packages that support online specification of the myriad details of a purchase, collect payment, and send the details to bookkeeping and the plant floor.

If the only constant is change, as the old adage has it, then 2006 will be business as usual-only more so as exceptional opportunities and unfamiliar dangers jostle for attention. The automation industry is enjoying the best business environment in years as the mature economies upgrade and new facilities come online in the developing world. Opportunity beckons as new technologies become available and competition compels their adoption.

From rising fuel prices and declining interest in science and engineering careers in the developed countries to the emergence of computer crime as an industry in its own right, successful firms will be looking not only forward, but over their shoulder.


Bob Felton, PE, is a freelance writer based in Wake Forest, N.C. Reach him at bob@civilcommotion.com .

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Students Turn Away From Engineering Studies

The world was reminded of the vital work of engineers when Hurricane Katrina destroyed thousands of square miles of southern Louisiana and Mississippi: no power, no water, no fuel; failed levees, failed roads, failed bridges; and entire cities ruined and uninhabitable.

But at the very time that advancing technology is driving up the demand for engineering know-how, American students are rejecting careers in science in engineering. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is so desperate for talent he asked Congress last April to remove limits on certain classes of visas, complaining the company is unable to hire domestically all the engineers it needs. Similarly, announcing plans to provide financial support intended to encourage employees to transition to careers in teaching, IBM Foundation head Stanley Litow said, "Over a quarter-million math and science teachers are needed, and it's hard to tell where the pipeline is. That is like a ticking time bomb not just for technology companies, but for business and the U.S. economy."

In October, the National Academies of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, issued a joint report grimly titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm, noting, "After secondary school, fewer U.S. students pursue science and engineering degrees than students in other countries." About 6% of our undergraduates study engineering-the second-lowest percentage among developed countries. Engineering students comprise about 12% of undergraduates in most of Europe, 20% in Singapore, and more than 40% in China. "Students throughout much of the world see careers in science and engineering as the path to a better future."

The report concludes, "Having reviewed the trends in the United States and abroad, the committee is deeply concerned that the scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength. We strongly believe that a worldwide strengthening will benefit the world's economy-particularly in the creation of jobs in countries that are far less well-off than the United States-but we are worried about the future prosperity of the United States."

National Science Foundation data confirm science and engineering enrollments are down. Science and engineering graduate students numbered 330,057 in 1993, dipped to 290,711 in 2000, then revived to 327,332 by 2003. The percentage of non- American science and engineering graduate students increased steadily, however, from 32% in 1993 to 45% in 2003.

Only two engineering disciplines have shown appreciable increases in enrollment during the same period. Biomedical engineering enrollments increased to 5,347 from 2,675, and electrical engineering enrollments increased to 41,745 from 35,290. As for the rest, automation industry pundit Jim Pinto explained declining enrollments succinctly: "The glamour is not there, and you can't fake that."-Bob Felton