August 2008

Engineers need IT smarts, solid general abilities

EDITOR'S NOTE: At ABB Automation World 2008, Enrique Santacana, president and chief executive of ABB Inc., region manager of ABB North America and Roger Bailey, senior vice president for the Process Automation Business Area in North America and business area group vice president for the Pulp and Paper industries, sat down with InTech Editor Gregory Hale to discuss hot topics throughout the industry. This is the second part of a conversation held at the conference.

InTech: What do you see the engineer's job looking like in the next couple of years? Will it be more IT savvy? Will the IT and engineering departments meld together?

Santacana: As a common thread, engineers are going to have to be IT savvy. Depending on the industry and the application, the knowledge of IT will go up and down as a requirement to do their jobs in and effective and efficient manner. We are always going to have a need for specialists; the guys that are real focused on a particular area of the business. We will always need those people. But as a general rule, we need to have engineers that are more interdisciplinary that have the ability to touch more parts of the business, more parts of technology. They need to be really good at connecting blocks and making all that work. We will need them to be in an environment of the value chain as opposed to buckets of expertise. If you look at the future of buckets of technical knowledge, you will still need those individuals that have to go deep into each bucket. But for many of our businesses, individuals that can connect with those common threads across all those blocks will be at a premium, and you have to be IT savvy to do that. It is the way of the future.

InTech: The industry has been talking about communication from the board room to the plant floor for years. Do you see that happening now?

Santacana: It is happening more and more. It depends on the industry. In a competitive environment where speed is a competitive weapon, if not the most important competitive weapon, you want to have that information. To me, it is not as important the office knows what is happening on the shop floor, but that information is available to the customer or end user. In that sense, you not only create the communication from shop floor to the management, but also to the customer. So, all those daily decisions that are happening between the shop floor and the customer like when is it going to be delivered, when is it going to be installed, where is it in the manufacturing stage, then it is going to be understood as a competitive tool by the people that are managing the business.

Bailey: I find it an interesting comparison of questions, because you asked earlier about wireless, you are asking about connecting the ERP to real time data, so the operator on the machine floor in theory can make the right financial decisions when it comes time to switching a production line or changing a products on the process. I think that idea has been talked about longer than wireless, yet the progress is actually less and more sporadic. Everybody talks about it, but actual successful applications has been a few more than there were a few years ago, but I think we have been pretty slow. Everybody is focused on this, but we have been pretty slow in making this happen.

InTech: Why is that?

Bailey: I think one of the largest challenges on that one is what is actually needed to connect many different plants' ERP to the real time data. What data does every plant want to see? How does every industry want to look at the data? It seems to be very different and very customized, and therefore the cost and the effort to get there is very high. If we could have a final solution that works everywhere, then it would be here; but that is what we are lacking-a standardized solution.

InTech: Are your customers coming to you saying we need security? Is the topic top of mind?

Santacana: In the industry that I come from, the power industry, it is definitely top of mind. The lights have to stay on. In the process industry, I suspect it is the same. It depends on the industry, but I think there is a degree of top of the mind. It is there; there is no question about that.

InTech: Does ABB have a plan in place for educating kids at the elementary, middle school, and high school level?

Santacana: No, we don't have a formal program for that. We are now in the process of evaluating where our human resources strategies should go. We started at the top establishing relationships at the universities. But I suspect as we continue the process, we will be forced to step one level down and start those initiatives.