We have all been violently reminded over the recent decades how the automation and information revolutions are changing society and how we make things and do business. Entire multi-billion-dollar technologies, business models, and industries have vanished, and completely different ones based on the new realities have taken their place. Hardware disruption undermines the physical plant and core technologies, paced by software advances that create an alternate infrastructure where only the new technologies fit.
In the consumer product space some technologies came and went so fast that markets never had time to develop around them. That aspect of the current general technology disruption has been spared, relatively speaking, from the industrial space, but it is also being actively impacted by circumstances. Each advance in core and supporting technologies, from power generation and management to motors and motion systems to automation and control systems has brought with it both disruption and opportunity, not necessarily in that order.
One of the most profound aspects of the technology and information revolution is how it affects competition. In today’s world it is easier to compete, regardless how large or complex the systems involved are, because the tools are so much more powerful and the required technologies are so new and the methodologies to use them are so immature that almost any entrant into the marketplace has equal footing with the established players. One can buy or rent the infrastructures needed from vendors and contractors now where before one had to develop and create them alone. One could always start an entire industry with just an idea and some hard work, but it is massively easier to do it now.
From a design viewpoint, the problems created by developing technology are exacerbated by the fact that society looks to the engineers to create future solutions with the developing technologies at hand to address the disruption, while often being challenged by the same issues the market is demanding solutions for. This is understandable for companies that have always been working at the bleeding edge, but now designers in spaces previously untouched by this revolution must address it.
From the perspective of power, industrial systems are in the midst of change from almost every angle. There is pressure for a designer as well as the integrator of industrial systems to make things more efficient, more reliable, more precise, more cost-effective, and be more manageable, all while guaranteeing a foolproof transition from the old to the new.
Smart facilities are an issue if you don’t have one. Luckily, the biggest issue in upgrading a facility, process, or production line has more to do with choice then with capabilities. Yet choice is a double-edged sword, as no solution is perfect for every situation, and you must ensure that your choice is the best solution for yours.
Wired systems have advantages, but among their shortcomings are issues of installation and materials cost. Wireless systems can have issues of power management, bandwidth, and interference. Both of these solutions have regulatory and compatibility issues that may create problems for the system designer. The best path is often a hybrid solution, not just between wired and wireless, but also between the various wired and wireless communication protocols required for inter-system management and coordination. Moving forward more “multi-lingual” devices and components will be created to get the various flavors of wired and wireless systems to integrate into a single solutions platform.
The bottom line in industry is adding value to source material(s), either by converting it to a more useful form, or creating products from it. The equipment to perform the work must be able to provide baseline functionality concurrent with the existing level of technical proficiency, or the facility will be non-competitive. Intelligent systems are more cost-effective to operate, especially within an infrastructure that leverages multiple system capabilities together.
The latest generation of intelligent devices able to function within the “Internet of Things”, and the supporting infrastructures from smart phones to the web, has enabled a level of productivity and performance previously unimaginable outside of fiction. The ability of products and systems to not only report on their operating status but change their operation at a distance (and often unsupervised), empowers fast-moving innovation and development on both the device design side and system integration side.
New manufacturing technologies, most visibly 3D printing and related processes, have changed the nature of how things are made. The technology enables not just rapid prototyping but everything from high-quality cost-effective short-run custom production to revolutionizing how spares and replacement parts are made to manufacturing-on-demand. These devices are growing in presence on the factory floor as well as the office desk, and everywhere in between. Here the makers are on the same network as the consumers, as designers, providers, and customers.
Being an engineer in the industrial space is both extremely challenging and extremely empowering, and often the only difference between the two states is the ability to choose the right solution available for the issue at hand. The key is to understand the systems and technologies involved and how they can be leveraged with one another.