By Jeremy Pollard, CET
The Instrument Society of America (ISA, www.isa.org) has changed its name a few times in the past 10 years, and is now called the International Society of Automation. Like its name, its marquee trade show and technical conference also has gone through gyrations.
The ISA shows of the past had more than 25,000 attendees, huge Hollywood-type booths, floor shows, and hospitality events that would make your head, as well as other parts of your body, spin. Then something changed. The "big boys"—Rockwell Automation, Emerson, Siemens, et al—went their separate ways. User group meetings sprung up, and the industry lost a large part of the need for larger trade shows and conferences.
Enter ISA Automaton Week 2010. It was not held in an exhibit hall, but a hotel—albeit a big one, the Westin Galleria in Houston. By all indications, it was a success.
ISA has gone through some very distinct changes itself. Much of the staff from last year's event has moved on to other things. The revenue generated from all things automation has slowed and downsizing seems to have hit all sectors of ISA.
But the event brought out the spirit of our community. The conference list targeted 1,000-1,200 attendees. They got more than 1,500. Many paid $800 to attend each day of the 2.5-day event, but this included lunches, coffee break refreshments, and a "Morley Unplugged" dinner of Texas BBQ, as well as listening to Carol "Cow Tip" Schafer and her gitbox with some original "automation" tunes. Dick Morley held court with stories based on words the audience gave out.
One attendee asked if he was really that "off his rocker." Seems that humans melted the ice caps on Mars, and it will be a good place to support life. The jury might still be out on that.
I was disappointed to find that the Press Room, usually a place to hang out and catch up with the winds of change, was simply a table. There were few press conferences or press releases, since members of the press were not really there. The buzz from press conferences releasing new and exciting news was missing.
I gave a talk in the Human Asset Management track titled, "The Gray Hair Lament—Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." If we are not careful, we gray hairs will not be able to retire. We simply know too much. We try to teach and pay forward the experience we have, but there is no one to tell it to. Common problems, I think. Our conference track was one of the highest-attended tracks. Managing people and knowledge before it walks out the door is a major issue.
The exhibit hall housed more than 100 suppliers of varying automation, controls and instrumentation disciplines. The hall was open only during breaks, lunch and the networking evening events. Excruciatingly missing was any real software dominance on the floor. There were five software-only companies. There was lots of software in most of the booths, but only for support of the hardware. Lots of booths had big monitors with software on them, but screamed hardware.
I attended a number of sessions, and they were all done relatively well. There were many sessions to choose, from soft skills to hard high-level tech stuff. The presenters were industry people with tons of experience, which were very well received by the "students."
I would suggest, however, that anyone who wants to be part of this conference contact ISA now. It is a great experience, along with making some career-long friends.
I talked to some vendors on the show floor, bored from lack of activity during the down time. But a common problem on the floor was the lack of general enthusiasm. Draw me into a booth. Don't let me walk by not knowing what you do.
I was very impressed with the way that ISA treated the attendees and the speakers, since this was more of a technical conference than a trade show. Each paying attendee got a USB stick with all of the presentations on it. That was cool!
Jeremy Pollard 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 25 years.