Past, Present, and Future of Automation – Part 1

I was part of a “once-in-a-life” panel discussion at ISA 2008 Expo originally titled “Past, Present, and Future of Automation” but shortened to “The Future of Automation.” The present in terms of the past is not encouraging in terms of automation careers but I think we can be optimistic about the future if we learn from the past. The panel consisted of Michael Brown (VP of Technology at Matrikon), myself, Dick Morley (entrepreneur extraordinary and father of the PLC), Greg Shinskey (receiver of the ISA 2008 Life Achievement Award), and Harold Wade (receiver of the ISA 2008 Eckman Education Award). The panel session was the brilliant idea of Michel Ruel. The room was packed with people lined up against the walls.

At the awards dinner the night before I got a thrill when the guy next to me asked if I was the Greg McMillan who had written all the books. When I said yes, he said “I wish I had your first book with me so you could sign it. That book is still so true today. Even new engineers find it useful. I have lent out my copy many times. Do you write serious books too?” I then realized he was talking about my book How to Become an Instrument Engineer – the Making of a Prima Donna which took just a couple of months to write and which came after 4 totally serious books that took every spare waking moment of 4 years of my life to complete (Tuning and Control Loop Performance, Axial and Centrifugal Compressor Control, pH Control, and Biochemical Measurement and Control). It gave me a perspective. The next day another person stopped me in the hall and thanked me profusely for writing so much but from the drift of the conversation I think he was referring to my control magazine “Control Talk” column and books with cartoons.

The panel discussion lasted 2 hours but could have gone on for 2 days. It started with everyone giving a 3-5 minute perspective as an introduction. I gave my “brief history of time” – a synopsis of what happened to me and the company I worked for from 1970 to the present.

I graduated in Engineering Physics which was special but now defunct program developed for nuclear submarine captains. You took all the required course of the physics major and 36 hours of electives in engineering (in my case mostly chemical engineering). I was offered jobs as an instrument engineer at a top 5 chemical company, an undefined job in design at the top aerospace firm, and in special circuits design for a regional telephone company. The job in instrument engineering sounded more interesting plus I had my own cubicle. I suspect it was the same for most process automation engineers in that they didn’t even know about the career until they started to look for a job.

When I started my job there were 1500 design engineers at the Headquarters and the company was building plants as fast as they could. The CEO was an engineer. Now there are 5 HQ engineers left (2 project managers, 1 process design engineer, and 2 configuration and historian engineers).

What happened and what do we need to reverse the decline in expertise in process control and automation as a career in the process industry? This will be the topic when I return from a wireless pH and temperature transmitter test on a portable Single Use Bioreactor (SUB). If you want some background and a preview, check out the following: PastPresentFutureAutomation