Shake Them Up

Nov. 9, 2010
A Black Box Won't Do It This Time. You and Many Others of Us Need to Get Up, Stand Up, Get Out and Push Some Buttons-On Some People
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

I tend to blunder into things. So, as I make dozens of phone calls, visit a few trade shows, and otherwise make the rounds in the controls and automation fields, I sometimes trip over common threads that aren't precisely part of what I was trying to cover. Some of these threads are enlightening, and some are pretty disturbing.

For example, in the past few months, I've run across a dozen or more engineers, system integrators and suppliers who all said they've developed and offered useful control and networking innovations and solutions, but almost none of their usual or new end users are willing to try them. This is doubly worrisome because the recent recession was supposed to be a time when breakneck production slackened, and many users would supposedly have time to repair and upgrade to some new technologies.

Likewise, while researching "The Great Data Link-Up," cover article for the November 2010 issue of Control Design, I ran across several frustrated hardware and software developers. They reported that not only do many users not want to experiment with new performance monitoring and networking-related tools, but many users and managers don't even switch-on many of the devices they already possess.

Sadly, as with old refusals to use twisted-pair fieldbuses, Ethernet and now wireless—not to mention neglecting basic computer security functions and disabling machine safeguards—I think the snag here is more about psychological denial than just reluctance to try new innovations.

In fact, this problem seems to be way beyond, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." This is more like, "If I don't go to the doctor, then I don't have to worry about a heart attack or cancer," or even, "The hospital makes people sick."
Of course, because I helped raised three kids from infancy, this situation also brings back echoes of, "I won't! I won't! I won't! No! No! No!" Sounds like baby needs a diaper change and a nap.

Unfortunately, because we're dealing with alleged adults here, there are fewer remedies and more potential disasters. For instance, in exchange for assurances that they won't have to make even slight concessions, many folks seem willing to reward those whose deregulation tanked the U.S. economy two years ago, who obstructed meaningful progress on economic stimulus, financial reform, health care and climate legislation, and who then blamed others for the lousy results they forced to happen. Who cares? Just don't tell me I have to change.

Inertia and ignorance are very powerful. By definition, they don't have to do anything to have negative and destructive effects, and can say resulting failure proves them right. In good times, the call is, "Why change now?" In bad times, the cry is, "We can't change now!" All come under the same lazy banner of those who will do almost anything to wriggle out of responsibility, say they're sorry, or even make changes obviously beneficial to them.

Now, most of the control and automation engineers I know aren't in this group. However, most are very specialized and organizationally compartmentalized. For example, when I've done stories on collaboration and network integration, everyone talks about throwing designs over the wall to the other engineering specialties. Likewise, many end users report they'd much rather buy a black box to solve their problems instead of having too much contact with counterparts in other departments and applications. The unfortunate stereotype is that most engineers don't get into engineering to talk to other people.

However, a black box won't do it this time. You and many others of us need to get up, stand up, get out and push some buttons—on some people. This might include co-workers, managers, customers, end users or all of the above. And watch out. Many are grumpy and vengeful. Don't expect any thanks. Do expect plenty of cursing, disciplinary action and perhaps sudden firings.

As a reporter, editor and hopefully helpful person, I always think about what references and resources I can give that will be useful. However, if you're reading this column and magazine, you likely already know what most of the available resources are.

Now, the time for research and recommending is over. The time for persistent annoying and organizing is here—to the point that laziness will find it easier to do what's needed than to keep getting an earful while lying still. Good luck.