A shift in the approach to programming could be pushed along by a technology change. Increasingly, the automation world will not be Windows-based, but instead will run on Linux, predicts Wade Jensen, CEO of automation integrator Wadsen, Temecula, Calif. He argues that ladder logic is on its way out. As for what will replace it, he notes that Linux is everywhere, most notably as the basis for Google's Android and as the operating system for Raspberry Pi. A $25 single-board computer, a Raspberry Pi can be the hardware behind a very inexpensive controller.
"Right now I'm writing code in Android, and I'm building a little frequency generator out of an embedded controller," Jensen says, as an indication of where things are headed.
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In addition to knowing higher-level computer languages, he adds that other skills that
will prove beneficial are proficiency in web design and HTML. Knowledge of how to form-ulate simple queries in SQL and its variants is also likely to become essential, Jensen says.
The arrival of Raspberry Pi is just another example of the forces pushing automation suppliers and integrators away from hardware to software, says Barrett Davis, partner at system integrator AutoMate of St. Louis. In the past, hardware was king because dedicated controllers costing thousands of dollars were needed. Now, there are reliable and inexpensive PCs, and even some systems that cost a few tens of dollars like the Raspberry, that can do the job. "A CPU is a CPU, so it really comes down to software," Davis says. "Now, that's only to a point. Some people think you can do everything with software.
Well, that's not really true. You have to have hardware that interfaces to instrumentation, and is capable of getting you the correct information."
This sidebar is part of the October 2013 cover story, "Old Skills, New Skills."