January 2009

Cover Story

Industry on edge

Networking, alarm management, predictive maintenance, security top technology initiatives


  • Networking a top technology for coming year; wireless looks strong over next five years.
  • Recession fears weigh heavily for 2009; further out, workforce development a top business need.
  • Industry feeling more pressure from environment regulations.
By Gregory Hale

Promises made for the New Year are already in the bank, and now it is time to get down to business. The technology is there, and the people and plans are in place to execute. Now the big question: Will the business be there?

It is easy to look at the dark clouds hovering. The economy is in recession; the Big 3 U.S. automakers are suffering; once mighty financial institutions are subject to late night talk show jokes; a governor is apparently looking for potential payoffs for a senate appointment; an investment security scandal reaching well into the high billions; high energy costs; companies across the globe taking big financial hits, and the list goes on.


Ready to pack in 2009 and talk about 2010? Not so fast. There are bright spots ahead.

"We have hope," said Helena Keeley, chief executive of technology provider Compsim of Brookfield, Wisc. "We work with all the big companies. Their interest is high, but you never know; we hope for the best."

With 2008 completed, 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.

When asked which technology their facility would rely upon for next year, the top choice was networking with 21%. With wireless being the rage throughout the industry, you would think it would score higher, but alarm management was second at 15% and predictive maintenance and security third at 14%. Wireless was next at 13%, with enterprise interoperability at 7% and other at 1%.

Down the road though, the future looks brighter for wireless as 22% said it would be the technology industry users will adopt over the next five years. Asset management was second at 15%, while networking and predictive maintenance scored at 14%. Alarm management and security came in at 12%, while enterprise interoperability had 10%.

The wireless technology manufacturers will most likely use next year will be WirelessHART, with 26% saying that was the protocol of choice, while 24% said 802.11b. From that point on, the protocols dropped down with 802.11a at 13%, 802.15 (Bluetooth) at 12%, ISA100 at 9%.

While the amount of respondents saying they will use the 802.11b protocol remained about the same from last year, WirelessHART jumped considerably as 26% said they would use it versus 22% last year. During the year, more WirelessHART products hit the market after approval of the specification in September 2007.

Getting on same page

In talking about communication, in a turnaround from last year, 53% of respondents said the plant floor is currently able to communicate data through the enterprise to the executive suite, while 47% said they did not. That is the exact opposite from last year when 47% said they could communicate and 53% said they did not.

At his refinery, Peter Mitchell, process controls engineer at the ConocoPhillips Bayway Refinery in Linden, N.J., said they want all departments on the same page. "We are looking at advanced controls projects to integrate more of the refinery's units together," Mitchell said.

Others simply just want to understand what their equipment is telling them.

"We need to move into OPC to get more data," said Robert Dusza, project and tech support manager at Manchester Water and Sewer in Manchester, Conn. "Since we buy from the lowest bidder, we can't standardize on a PLC. We have different brands, and they have their own protocols, and that becomes a headache. By implementing OPC, the data all looks the same."

Technology is one thing, after all that is the bread and butter of the industry, but business factors play heavily throughout the automation environment.

When asked what they see as the biggest business challenge for the coming year, 45% of respondents said the recession. The next closest answer was related to the recession and it was profitability, which came in at 14%. Energy costs and workforce development ended up at 9%, and the aging out of the workforce came in at 7%.

"We are tied to the automotive industry, and if their plants close, we are selling power to them, so we will feel the affect," said Doug Eicher, supervisor of engineering compliance at DTE Energy in Detroit.

"The biggest challenge for us, while we can't save Ford, GM, and Chrysler, we can focus on providing a reliable product for our customers and being more responsive to their needs," Eicher said.

"There is a lot of emphasis on controlling costs from what we are told," Mitchell said. "We will work toward saving on energy costs. We are focused on energy cost reduction, and we will do that moving forward."

"Between the extra costs for our turnaround (they have a plant turnaround scheduled for this year) and the economy, it will be tight at the refinery. We will not spend where we don't have to spend," he said.

Source: InTech

Developing workers

Looking through the crystal ball, respondents obviously do not see the recession lasting as they said the biggest business challenge over the next five years will be workforce development at 20%, followed closely by aging out of workers and profitability at 18%.

Boomers leaving the industry remains an issue. "It is a large concern across the entire country," Eicher said. "That knowledge base is going to disappear off the map. If you aren't taking the time to teach and mentor new people, then you will have a problem. If you take the people leaving, and then add in the economic problems, it exacerbates the situation for the coming year."

Energy costs was the fourth highest business challenge at 13%, followed by the recession at 12% and regulations at 9%.

One technology finding a difficult start is a geophysical instrument that can identify and find oil, gas, and hydrocarbons in the ground before anyone has to drill a hole, said Robert Miller, president and chief executive at Houston-based Unlimited Technology, a value added integrator.

"I have a solution the economy is waiting for," Miller said. "We have more oil and gas in the United States than they do in the Middle East, and this instrument will be able to find it without digging up the environment. We have been struggling to find a suitable financial partner to move forward."

Rule of law

Of all the survey respondents, 60% said they see federal and state regulations becoming even more of an issue in 2009. Of those that answered yes to the question, the most popular type of regulation was for the environment.

"The country is getting greener all the time, which is a good thing," Eicher said. "The capability to detect and measure mercury to where we can control it where we want is a leading edge technology."

When it comes to certain systems that manufacturers employ, the DCS seems to be gaining favor as 41% of respondents said the DCS has a greater future over the PLC and the PAC. The PLC came in second with 30%, and 28% said the PAC has a greater future. That is in contrast to last year when 37% said the DCS had a greater future and PLC and the PAC tied at 32%.

Source: InTech

Before the recession and the exorbitant fuel prices, outsourcing was a huge issue throughout the industry. In 2009, it seems that remains an issue with 52% of respondents saying they see outsourcing as a continuing trend. However, that is a drop from last year when 58% saw outsourcing as a continuing trend.

The same can be said for offshoring, with 66% this year saying it is not a continuing trend. Last year, 60% said it was not a continuing trend.

When talking about outsourcing and offshoring, it would seem more manufacturers are becoming more global.

Going global

When asked if their company produces product on a global basis, 66% said yes, while 34% said no. Of those that said yes, 52% said their company has standardized its processes globally.

Source: InTech

Whether you produce product globally or locally, everyone needs partners. However, it seems 45% of respondents said they have an official partner program, while 55% said they did not. And, of those that answered yes to having a partner program, 48% said they see it growing in 2009, while 52% said they did not.

When talking about the next big area for technology growth, the phrase, "what a difference a year makes," seems apropos. For 2009, respondents said they see alternative energy being the biggest area of growth with 50%. The next highest was wireless at 19%, followed by nanotechnology at 15%. Last year, the biggest area of technology growth was wireless.

The biggest challenge Keeley sees is finding "organizations that are willing to develop and test new technology."

For others finding the technology isn't as much of a problem as connecting all the dots.

"We are looking at upgrading our hardware in the water plants and trying to modernize our units," Dusza said. "One challenge will be coordinating the upgrading of our water treatment plant. We need to coordinate the new processes with our existing SCADA systems."

But everything always comes back to the economy.

In his 29 ½ years at DTE, Eicher said the outlook for next year is the worst he has ever seen. "From what I have heard, the economic crisis in '74 and '75 was similar. Back then, it may have been worse."

No one really knows when the situation will reverse.

"We see the light at the end of the tunnel," Mitchell said, "but it is a long way off-and I don't think it is a train."

Gregory Hale is editor of InTech magazine.

Outlook in Europe looks, sounds similar

By Cris Whetton

In economic terms, the 2009 outlook for the European Control and Instrumentation sector seems low, with layoffs and project cancellations becoming widespread.

There are some bright spots, however. Several European refineries remain committed to adding biodiesel lines, and these plans have not changed. Construction of stand-alone biodiesel plants is more or less at a standstill, and ethanol plants have never attracted the attention they have in the U.S., but biodiesel integrated with an existing refinery seems to be growing in popularity.

The big growth area is biogas, methane produced from biological waste and either used locally or injected into a national utility, which is a major growth area in Germany, Switzerland, and Central Europe.


Unfortunately, the image of the biogas sector has been tarnished by a number of spectacular incidents, mostly caused by poor construction and lack of safety systems on small and medium sized plants. The image of 200,000 liters of fermenting hog slurry moving downhill into the village is enough to capture anyone's attention.

A second projected European growth area is in geothermal energy.

Throughout Continental Europe, especially in parts of Germany, Hungary, and Italy, areas of fairly hot rocks exist close to the surface. In many of these, the temperature difference is sufficient to vaporize ammonia-water mixtures (or other, more exotic formulations) giving them sufficient energy to drive a turbine on the surface, and hence to produce electricity. The efficient operation of such systems-of which a handful, notably in southern Germany, are in commercial operation-requires careful control and accurate information on downhole temperatures.

Before the current economic downturn, some oil well logging companies were interested in developing a low-cost solution to this issue; what happens next, no one is saying, but there is growing interest in a geothermal plant. Of the factors going for it, the lack of visual intrusion-compared to wind farms-and the continuous availability of power, rate very high.

Another major growth area will naturally be in security systems. In this area, wireless solutions are in favor. For obvious reasons, few are prepared to be specific about their plans, but as utilities continue to suffer from copper thefts, they are seeking wireless solutions, including RFID, for access control. Some enterprising, but ill-informed, thieves in St. Petersburg, Russia, stole several hundred thousand euros worth of expensive, high-quality, pre-insulated piping for use on the district heating system. They made the mistake of trying to ship it back to its country of origin, where the RFID tags raised the alarm at the border.

Cris Whetton is InTech's European correspondent.