June 2008

Engineers 'have to rely on technology today'

EDITOR'S NOTE: At the Yokogawa User Group meeting in Houston, Yokogawa Corporation of America President and Chief Executive David Johnson sat down with InTech Editor Gregory Hale to discuss automation industry issues.

InTech: What will the engineer's job look like in the next three years?

Johnson: I think what we are coming into is we are going to have more people with a business perspective. We had a discussion with some of our users, and they kept telling me how proud they were of their organization because the guy on the top had been in refining for the past 30 years. That is very unique and very good. What I am seeing as a trend, moving forward, are plant managers in their 30s. They are computer people, business people; they have a different profile today. What they are expecting is they are not hoping their automation works; they are not hoping what they have out there is functional; they are basically saying is we need to be automated and we need to be making business decisions. From that standpoint, I think the model is changing. The big key is to get all the knowledge between the ears of the people out there and get it into automation.

InTech: What are the biggest issues facing manufacturers today?

Johnson: The one that everyone just screams about today is talking about 25% to 40% of their workforce is going to be gone in the next 10 years. They don't have a choice about automation anymore. In the past, they entertained thoughts of fully automated plant. There are no options anymore. They almost seem like they want to simplify to a certain degree. 'Let's simplify to see if it works really well so we can trust it,' and I don't know if they need all the unique options or bells and whistles. Use the power of the computer and simplify it and let them see what they want to see. Don't give them too much information because that is overload. Give them what they need to effectively do their job.

InTech: There are leaders and managers-do you see the industry having leaders at the leadership role?

Johnson: The people leading the industry are a little bit ahead of the curve from the standpoint they are really business leaders now. You see very little people walking the floors and spending time with the people. They have groups of people looking out for the competition. If you truly listen and pay attention to what the customer wants, the profitability will come because it is a business relationship.

InTech: How do you get new people interested to jump on board and into the industry?

Johnson: The industry in general does not have a real positive connotation. When you think about it, most people hear about our industry and they think about refining and accidents. I know everyone is very conscious about safety, but if you are 19, 20, 21 years old and you are going through school, you are much more inclined to be thinking Microsoft, much more inclined to be thinking about different clean industries that pay a lot of money. While our industry pays pretty well, the issue is I don't think we do a great job of promoting what it is we accomplish.

InTech: How much do companies really use their technology?

Johnson: Some progressive companies have gotten up to 75-80%, but they still have a system in place where people can still run and turn off switches manually. I think they are going to be forced into (using their technology to a greater degree). The software component is also a big one. The hardware is there. The issue is so much is run on layered software and all the industrial manufacturers have software, but there is a lot of third party stuff There is a certain amount of respect, but I think from an end user's stand point, I am not sure there is enough trust as there needs to be in that software. But now you have a kid sitting in the control room that is 40 or 35 years old who is in charge, and he is fine with it.

InTech: Do you see this being more generational?

Johnson: I don't think there is any question. Now you have a bunch of kids that think if it isn't wireless … I still think half the buzz out there right now is the kids saying 'I don't understand what the problem is with wireless, we have been doing this for 10, 15 years.' They don't have any issue with wireless.

InTech: Experts have been talking about communicating from the plant floor up through to the executive suite for years. Is that really happening now?

Johnson: It's getting closer, but it's a train track that doesn't connect. We are focused on trying to make it happen. I hope it does connect some day.