May/June 2010

The past and future of automation - what's in store for the next 40 years?

By Don Frey

As I prepared this article, I realized I've been involved in this profession for over 40 years. How time flies when you are having fun! I also began to realize how significant the changes have been in those 40 years. Who would have ever thought a computer in your pocket that you can talk on, without wires, powered by batteries, and no vacuum tubes?

I began to think about the significant changes our profession faces in the next 10 years or so. Our profession faces a significant "changing of the guard" as the Vietnam generation retires and leaves the workforce. This change means many newcomers in our ranks over the next few years. Where will they gain their practical knowledge to become skilled practitioners?

How we got here

For most of us engaged in the profession, automation was not a planned career, but rather an accident. When I started, it was not possible to obtain an education in a technical or engineering school whose main focus was automation. We all had to "be" something else: chemical, electrical, or mechanical engineer, electronics technician, mechanical expert, etc. For most, a course or two in "instrumentation" was about all the exposure we had to this profession, and most of the instrumentation was laboratory equipment. Today, it is possible to obtain associate, undergraduate, and graduate degrees in automation, and automation is becoming more widely regarded as a "legitimate" discipline or profession in its own right.

Challenges, changes

Along with the challenges facing newcomers in our profession, there are significant changes taking place with the equipment we use. When I started, most process control equipment used pneumatic transmission. Most of the "computing" equipment used was pneumatic, very simple, and dedicated to performing one function. Process information available to the operator then consisted of analog displays and recording charts. Today, the good news is most every device is programmable. The bad news is most every device is programmable.

Full-graphic interactive displays are the norm for an operator interface. With current technology, it is quite feasible to buy an automation system without having defined either the process or the control methodology. About the only information required to purchase an automation system these days is a coarse definition of how many inputs and outputs are desired. Today's practitioners can buy crates of automation equipment and figure out how to use them later.


With the tremendous flexibility available today, it becomes even more important that thorough documentation of automation systems, physical and virtual configurations, be completed and kept up-to-date. In many instances, there are regulatory requirements that define what documentation is required as a minimum, but it is in every company's best interest to go beyond the regulatory requirements and see that the entire configuration is documented initially and kept up-to-date as changes are made. In many of today's industries, there are management-of-change requirements, and many industrial insurers are also requiring detailed record keeping. For savvy professionals, the mantra is document, document, and document.

The cloudy crystal ball

Given the phenomenal changes in technology available to us over the last 40 years, what will the next 40 hold?

I am confident technology available to the up-and-coming practitioners will continue to evolve, growing in power and functionality while shrinking in physical size and energy usage. The use of secure networking will continue to grow, with wireless technology playing an ever-increasing role. Robotics will continue to improve, taking over many of the repetitive or physically hazardous jobs humans currently perform. This increased use of robotics will mean tomorrow's production workers will be focused far more on oversight and problem resolution.

Preparing future practitioners

For any of this development to be possible, we have to provide the benefit of past experience to the next generation of automation professionals. Mentoring those who will follow us is CRITICAL. We must demand a renewed emphasis on science, mathematics, and engineering in our schools. We need to support effective delivery of continuing education in our profession. We should reinforce the value of peer interaction through professional networking. Not everything the next generation needs will be found on the Internet.

There were many individuals who took the time to help me learn this profession. They made sure I had the tools to succeed, the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. We have no less an obligation to those who follow us. But let's be innovative! How about sharing our experiences, giving new automation professionals the benefit of our mistakes, and the confidence to be creative and go make new mistakes …

Get involved and stay involved!


Don Frey is an ISA Twin Cities Section delegate. He welcomes comments or questions you may have (