January 2008

InTech's Automation Outlook 2008

People Power

Workforce development, aging Boomers, wireless key industry initiatives

Fast Forward

  • Workforce development top business challenge for the coming year.
  • Aging workers taking working knowledge out of industry a bigger problem in five years.
  • Wireless top technology opportunity and challenge in 2008.
By Gregory Hale

The force behind any process, technology, or product continues to be people. While hardly a commodity, people running the plants will continue to be a top issue for the coming year and through the future.

What that all means is there are potential opportunities for automation engineers. Baby Boomers will soon be leaving the industry and taking their knowledge with them, and now is the time to jump into the digital age and apply that knowledge.

With 2007 in the books, and living in the world of "what have you done for me lately," InTech magazine, the flagship publication of ISA, conducted an online survey to find out what industry observers and practitioners felt the trends were going to be this year and in the years to come. 

"We are having trouble finding people," said Peter Baker, product manager at NBT in Maple Grove, Minn. "Everybody now wants to be a lawyer, basketball player, or a rock star. We have to make the job more appealing and sexy. My employer said anyone can do the job, but they can't."

Workforce development was the top business challenge for 2008 with 34% of respondents voting. The second is somewhat related, which is the aging out of workers with 17% saying that remains an issue; 16% said profitability was the top business challenge for the year. Those numbers are in contrast to last year's top vote getter, which was the global economy at 24%. The aging workforce was second last year at 18%, with profitability third at 17%.

However, the biggest business challenge in five years from the respondents' perspective will be the aging out of workers, with 36% saying that will be the problem. Workforce development will remain a top priority, as 20% said it will remain top of mind. 

"People that recruit on campus today are looking for process control people, and the problem is there are not enough to go around," said R. Russell Rhinehart, Edward E. Bartlett Chair and Head of the Chemical Engineering school at Oklahoma State University. "And with people retiring, I think we will be in a big crunch in 10 years."

Michael Angell, plant manager at Sun Chemical in Maumee, Ohio, said he feels automation will fill the void.

"The automation is doing all the work. As people (retire), automation will help replace them. People have to open their minds to that. In one way, the race is on to see which will replace the other: Automation replacing people or people retiring before automation replaces them."

One thing Angell said he has had to do over the past few years is to convince people digital manufacturing is the right thing to do. "(Workers) came into an environment where there were people, now they have to work in an environment where there are no people."


Grasping technology

From a different perspective, the bad news is Boomers will be leaving the industry and taking a world of knowledge with them; however, the good news is younger engineers will be coming in with a boatload of technology experience under their belts.

"The newer generation understands computers a lot better," said Marty Martin, senior automation engineer at Amgen in West Greenwich, R.I. "They may not know process control, but they can learn that. They just have to learn the control aspect, and if you get on a few projects and are around the right people, they can pick it up a lot better."

"We are just like anyone else out there in the industry; one of the big issues we face is keeping a good flow of people, and there is a global challenge for people in our business," said John Berra, president of Emerson Process Management. "We are constantly acquiring, maintaining, and developing all the skills our engineers and leaders need to run key positions of the company. We spend a lot of time developing high potential people."

One of the key issues in keeping people is consistently training them to keep them on top of the game. 

Training remains a top priority for quite a few technology areas, according to the survey. In a question where respondents could give more than one answer, wireless came out on top with 19% saying they could use some course work, while 17% said they could use some assistance with networking, 15% with security, 14% with predictive maintenance, 13% with enterprise interoperability, and 11% each for asset management and alarm management.


Continuing education

Rhinehart said one of the biggest issues he sees is the training and education of the people in charge of automation in the plants.

"Engineers and technicians don't get the most out of the technology. Plant engineers and operators just don't understand."

Outsourcing will continue in the coming year, with 58% saying the trend will keep moving forward.  In terms of offshoring, 40% said it will continue, while 60% said it will not in 2008. Those numbers are close to last year when 38% said offshoring will continue and 62% said it will not.

"The choice between investment in local people and resources, and moving offshore-not just for low-cost manufacturing, but for highly-motivated, effective, and productive design and development people and services-keeps automation industry executives up at night," said Jim Pinto, founder of Action Instruments and industry watchdog. "GE, Honeywell, Rockwell, Invensys are all going offshore for instrumentation, software, and systems design. That's not a 'comfortable' decision to make."

Partnering continues to be a trend in all facets of the industry, and the survey shows 53% of companies do not have a partner program, while 47% do. That contrasts with last year's survey, which showed 55% said they did not have a partner program and 45% said they did.

Of this year's respondents, 48% said they see their partner programs growing, while 52% said they do not.

Regulations will remain a business challenge, with 58% saying federal and state regulations will affect their company even more in 2008. In addition, 57% said the reason regulations will continue to be a challenge is because new federal regulations are going into effect, while 30% said older regulations are now being enforced and 26% said new state regulations are taking hold.


Eye on technology

When it comes to advancing technology, wireless led the way.

Wireless is going to be the biggest technology challenge for the coming year, with 23% of respondents giving the high sign. Number two on the challenge front is enterprise interoperability, with 19%. That contrasts with last year when 21% said predictive maintenance was the top challenge. Wireless and enterprise interoperability tied last year at 18%. Predictive maintenance scored at 11% in this year's poll.

"Translating to wireless and having security in the wireless network" will be a big factor during the year, Rhinehart said.

Wireless will be big next year, Baker said. "There is such a hassle in running cable. Wireless is more mobile. With wire you are stuck, and there is a big expense to move things around."

"The technology I love is wireless," Martin said. "Once you have it in the plant, you can just use it from point to point." 

The problem Martin sees is his company is not ready for the jump.

"It would be a paradigm shift. It would be a hard sell because it doesn't fit into our I/O structure right now. We can't show a definite pay back right now. Right now, everything is wired, and there is no need to go wireless. If we do it, it has to be simple."

Within the wireless spectrum, 802.11b ranks as the top wireless technology respondents will use next year with 25% giving it the thumbs up. WirelessHART came in second with 22% saying they will use it. Oddly enough, 7% said they had no plans to use wireless in 2008. Of the respondents that answered, 5% said they planned to use the ISA100 standard, which has yet to hit the market.


The purpose behind 802.11b or WiFi (which stands for wireless fidelity) is to retain the error-correction, security, power-management, and other advantages of the original, but slower 802.11 standard. This addition adds a key ingredient, a technique for increasing bandwidth to 11M bit/sec. This technique, called Complementary Code Keying (CCK), works in conjunction with the DSSS technology specified in the original standard. It does not work with frequency-hopping spread spectrum or infrared transmissions.

"Wireless will generate significant growth," Pinto said. "Beyond just wire-replacement, completely new applications will generate fast investment payback, which will accelerate growth. Mesh networking will support multiple industrial protocols, and will quickly become integrated with standard plant and office WiFi, WiMax, and broadband IT networks."

Looking out over the next five years, respondents said enterprise interoperability would be the biggest challenge at 27%, with wireless second at 23%. The third challenge in five years was security, with 14% of respondents choosing it.

When asked if their plant floor is currently able to communicate data through the enterprise to the executive suite, 53% of respondents said they could not, while 47% said they could. This is up slightly from last year when 51% said they were able to communicate through the enterprise.

A call for standards

Whether it is through industry or individual companies, standards remain at the forefront. Wireless was the top vote getter when respondents answered which technology they thought warrants an industry standard. Wireless came in at 27%, while 17% said it needed a standard for networking, and 16% said it needed a standard each for security and for enterprise interoperability.

Angell said there are standards out there, but he would like to see more. "There needs to be a common language for process analytical testing. All vendors need to get on the same page."

Engineers continue the debate over which is the preferred system, PLCs or DCS. But, when you add in the PAC, things get interesting.

Asked about the viability of the PLC vs. the DCS vs. the PAC, 36% of respondents said they felt DCS' had a greater future in the industry, while 32% each said PLCs and PACs had a greater future. Since PLCs and DCSs have been around for quite a bit longer than PACs, there might be some room for discussion on the system of the future.

Angell said he is planning a conversion this year from PLCs to DCS.

"Our PLCs are 16 years old, and we designed a new process that needs the horsepower of the DCS," Angell said.

As far as what respondents are looking at for technology growth in the coming years, wireless ranked number one, with 40% saying it is going to be the big area for growth. Nanotechnology came in second with 29%, biotechnology third with 15%, and RFID in fourth with 11%. Wireless ranked a bit higher this year compared to last when 38% said the technology would be a big growth area, while 33% said nanotechnology would grow.

"Machine-to-machine (M2M) has been slow in coming, but will start generating significant productivity results in the coming year-improved asset-management, dramatic cost reductions, and enhanced service initiatives," Pinto said.

Whatever the technology changes in the year or years to come, there is no doubt the engineer's job has evolved over the years and will continue to change.

"The technology today is a lot quicker," Martin said. "What I can do in an hour now would take me all night before."


Gregory Hale is the editor of InTech magazine.




Europe looks stable

By Cris Whetton

The automation market for Europe in 2008 can be summed up as: Stable in the short term but jittery about long-term prospects. 

The keys seem to be Iraq, the consequent slump of the dollar, and the uncertain business climate in Russia.

Largely due to the plunge of the U.S. dollar, a group of European engineers from the pharma sector in Britain in early December were more concerned about the sizes of their potential redundancy packages than industry prospects for 2008. A similar group from oil and petrochemicals talked of which major Chinese dialect to learn. Even those from the Gulf lacked their usual exuberance. 

In the biofuels sector, the brightest molecule on the horizon is methane. Converting agricultural waste to high-purity gas, which they can inject into the existing natural gas system, seems to be a growing area. Apart from a few large plants in the Netherlands and western Germany, such systems tend to be small, rural, and operated by semi-skilled workers. The trend-in plant and automation-is toward packaged, scalable systems. In end use, in transport, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is beginning to gain some market share at the expense of gasoline and LPG; however, the control and automation content in end use is not high.

The most notable pipeline project of the near future is the Nord Stream (NS) pipeline along the bed of the Baltic Sea to bring gas from Russia to Germany. However, it remains uncertain when and where it will be built. As with all pipeline automation, pump, and compressor manufacturers will integrate the systems. Beyond NS, there are ongoing proposals to build a Libya-Crete gas pipeline, Hungary's MOL plans to integrate the central and south-eastern European gas networks, and several plans for oil pipelines from Kazakstan and Russia to China.

The most promising European projects for automation are refineries planned in the U.K. and Turkey. In Britain, the SONHOE Development Company, a private venture owned by three individuals, has announced plans to build a $4 billion (£2 billion) refinery on a former ICI site at Teesside. The plant will process 200,000 barrels a day of heavy crude oil into low-sulphur diesel, petrochemical feedstock naphtha, and kerosene. 

In Turkey, several refinery projects are in the planning stages but are not as firm as they seem, with some dependent on a peaceful settlement in Iraq and on the completion of several pipelines, including Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC), Samsun-Ceyhan, and Kirkuk-Ceyhan.

Kazakstan's KazMunaiGas (KMG), Turkish Calik Enerji, IndianOil, and Italy's ENI plan to join forces to construct a $5 billion oil refinery in Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.  

Cris Whetton is InTech's European correspondent.