November/December 2012
Talk to Me

Application engineering and product innovations

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

Question: Is it more important for engineers to focus on application engineering or adding new products? The answer is both. In either case, the knowledge, know-how, and creativity of automation engineers is the key to successful implementations to improve production.

Application engineering involves using the building blocks of technology to tailor systems to satisfy unique characteristics of specific plants, manufacturing environments, and processes. Some of the applications are simple, but many are complicated. My experience working with applications problems is it requires thinking through a number of options, variables, and constraints to design automation solutions. I like to call the middle of this process, "balancing a basketball on your fingertip." It always seems like there is a big jumble of stuff to factor into your thinking before there is clarity. When an application is implemented and running, it all looks so simple. I do believe that there is an artistic component to good application engineering, since it is a non-linear thought process. The solutions created by engineers look so simple that many of their managers do not have an appreciation of the knowledge, know-how, creativity, and work it takes to design simple solutions to difficult problems. You might suggest that your manager read the book by Mathew E. May, The Elegant Solution, which describes Toyota's concepts that simple solutions are valuable but take a lot of work and know-how to achieve.

The role of automation professionals is expanding as manufacturing is being improved with integration into business systems to provide more flexibility, responsiveness, and productivity. The importance of automation professionals was summed up by Peter Martin, Ph.D., vice president, business value solutions at Invensys, in his introduction of the ISA Automation Week 2012 Executive Roundtable-An Open Discussion About the Future of Automation: "We [automation professionals] are the future of industry; if we do our job industry will thrive." Martin's comments punctuated the importance of automation professionals, and the panel discussed the need to interest new people to join the profession. Also discussed was the expanding role of automation professionals to go beyond machine and process to include integration with business systems.

It is valuable for automation professionals to keep expanding their knowledge of new automation technology, methods, and the expanding range of products that are building blocks to create application solutions. Certainly there are many ways to learn about new solutions. The Internet and industry magazines deliver information, but I suggest that conferences also provide a truly interactive way to improve knowledge and skills.

A number of industry and vendor conferences took place this past year, and a great example of a valuable non-vendor conference was ISA Automation Week 2012, where automation professionals from around the world benefited from a smorgasbord of application engineering ideas exchanged in more than 60 technical conference sessions, networking events, and among the 88 vendors displaying unique new technological solutions. In addition to the formal presentations and sessions, the opportunity to talk with automation people from other companies and industries provided a cross-pollination of ideas that can stimulate new thinking and innovations. Attending and participating in local ISA section meetings, industry symposia (examples: water/wastewater; safety and security), and events is another way to gain knowledge and interact with other automation professionals.

It is important for your career and your company to stay ahead of industry competitors by applying technology. Ideas are powerful and transformational and best found by putting yourself in the right environments.