30 years young

Embedded Intelligence columnist Jeremy Pollard notes the divergence of people doing things and machines doing things has led to a large segment of workers who don’t have to think because machines do it for them.

By Jeremy Pollard, CET, Columnist

IF YOU THINK about where you were 30 years ago—unless you’re pretty young—you know technology is a lot different now. Our technological world as we know it doesn’t have origins tracing back 100 years, but only the past 25 years. Some would argue it’s been less time than that.

PLCs and the HMIs that interface with them now control most factory processes. The processes haven’t changed much, but the components of their control systems have changed big time.

Machine control also has been performed using embedded controllers, often as much as PLCs have been used in systems. Electronics, most importantly the microprocessor, changed our world forever.

This device allowed the creative technology gods to make changes to our lives and environment that otherwise would not have been possible. How they cook the fries at McDonald’s has never been the same.

So, there’s an ongoing divergence between people doing things and machines doing things. This has led to a generation that includes a large segment of workers who don’t have to think because machines do it for them.

Thus, innovation originating from the floor is almost dead.

Maybe this is why outsourcing is as attractive as it is, since people outside this country apparently are jumping at the chance to be more than just a number, and provide a better value.

With the inevitable demise of the technology that drives all the legacy control systems still out there, we’ll have to come up with other means and methods to control the process. If you no longer can get any parts to fix an existing control system, then you must replace it.

Only processes designed and built during the past five years or so use current technology. A wide-ranging statement, I know, but the obsolescence curves are getting shorter.

Agile manufacturing requires agile control systems. That’s what we thought PLCs were. They probably were, relative to what we knew at the time. However, things are changing.

I was the managing director of PLCopen for six years, and while I gave many talks and presented many seminars on IEC-61131, a recent webcast mirrored my conclusions, suggesting that most controls folks don’t understand what the deal is.

By itself, this isn’t startling, but one has to wonder what other technologies for our control systems aren’t visible to the people responsible. Or is it that they don’t know enough to implement change? That could be startling.

When was the last time you asked your control system vendors what their obsolescence policy is? In fact, ask the direct question: “How long do I have?”

Ken Crater, president of Control.com, once said that the technology we’ll use in five years hasn’t been developed yet. That was in the mid-1990s. His timing might have been a bit off, but it’s true for the times we live in now. It’s the software that made him a prophet.

How many of the new engineering people really understand the processes that are being controlled? With brain-drain, gray-hair-knowledge gone, and a lack of documented know-how, we could be entering a phase of modernization without the benefit of lessons learned.

Make no mistake about it. The time is coming when we’ll have to identify the processes and machine controls that need to work together in the new world. Who’s going to do it?

Enter—more accurately re-enter—the factory-floor people. The first thing a maintenance person would do when a process stopped was ask the operator—you know, the guy who gets paid the least and knows the most.

But with a machine’s ability to “do it itself,” this form of interrogation might not hold the treasures it once did.

Remember how long 386 processors were around? In comparison to the 8086, it was a blink. Machine knowledge is uncomfortably similar, I think.

The Silicon Insider newsletter, which covers the Intels and AMDs of the world, suggests that a real scramble will occur to replace the obsolete chips with current technology. This smells like a looming problem to me.

Learn how your business will be affected by product obsolescence. Detail what your processes do. Keep everyone in the process loop to allow some innovation to have contributions from the floor.

I’m not sure you have a choice.


  About the Author
Jeremy PollardJeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Publisher of The Software User Online, he has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 20 years. He’ll be pleased to hear from you, so e-mail him at jpollard@tsuonline.com.
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