Networking in the Sisterhood

Aug. 22, 2007
"What does this look like?” I ask that question a lot to help understand what I’m talking about in automation, control and industrial networking.
By Jim Montague, executive editor

I look for similarities between the technologies and parts of real life that can explain how those technologies function and work together. You know, fieldbus topologies that look like rural telephone layouts; data packets prefaced by ID bytes performing much like sales representatives handing out business cards at a trade show; and switches, gateways and routers, all evolving to look like each other.

However, even I’ve been bowled over when, after a day of researching and reporting on control and automation, I return home to find systems devised by my three daughters and their friends that often seem as complex as those on many human-machine interfaces and plant floors. Over the years, I’ve tripped over successive generations of stuffed animals, Barbies, LEGOs, tents and forts, and other combinations of playthings arranged into intricate patterns, households, and communities. Each component and player typically has a detailed profile and responsibilities and usually participates in role-playing scenarios and other dramas worked out in intricate detail.

I’ve tried to follow along, but I usually miss too many crucial details. This upsets the internal logic of these delicate scenarios and usually gets me politely dismissed from the game. Come to think of it, I’ve seen the same eyes rolling heavenward in the heads of more than a few plant-floor engineers.

Anyway, I think the girls’ undoubtedly environmental and DNA-fueled fascination might be sparked in toddler-hood when each of my girls identified any and every group of two or more objects as a family.

“That’s the mama truck! That’s the daddy jellybean! That’s the baby asteroid!” Civilized conceits aside, biology still rules everything.
Since then, my daughters and their friends have added software simulation games such as Animal Crossing, The Sims, and others that put this role-playing and community-building onscreen and online. Many of these simulations are as detailed and sophisticated as today’s industrial SCADA systems, fieldbus and Ethernet-based networks, and the I/O devices they monitor and manage. Software function blocks being used and reused on the plant floors make these similarities even more obvious. In addition, some schools find they hardly need to teach typing anymore because their instant messaging (IM)-enabled students already can keyboard like pros.

Remember the girl in Jurassic Park who recognized and manipulated the island’s Unix-based security system to lock the raptors out of the control room? Well, if she wasn’t fictional, she’d probably be in post-graduate school by now. I know a few dozen other people like her personally and so do you most likely, whether you’re a grandpa, dad, uncle, husband, brother, or son. Some children get the encouragement in math and science they’ll need to pursue engineering careers, but even today far too many don’t get that crucial support.

Carol Gilligan, psychologist, reported in her book, In a Different Voice, her findings on how preteen girls form social networks and use a value system that puts a lot more emphasis on maintaining relationships than male counterparts. Because relationships are the heart of networking generally, it’s logical that girls might be especially adept at developing industrial versions, too.

Dozens if not hundreds of gifted female engineers already pioneered careers in control and automation, but they still represent a tiny minority of the profession’s population. That’s going to change soon. Just as the emergence of software and IT triggered basic changes on the plant floor, a critical mass of women engineers likely will have an equally transformative effect on industrial networking.

A reenergized focus on human and technological relationship-building could help sweep away most of the remaining proprietary silos and arbitrary divisions that have held back control and automation from achieving its true potential for too long.

So, what do all the male engineers do? Well, once again, it’s time to stop, listen, and hope to learn something useful. 

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