Dear colleagues

1. I have almost finished my Roadshow with tremendous interaction from the hundreds of guys that attended these short sessions on topics ranging from the latest developments in surge protection, lightning and Fieldbus to Industrial Ethernet and engineering inspired e-learning.

An old chestnut surfaced on a few occasions and gave rise to heated debate (again):

"How are the engineering and production guys supposed to interact with the IT department (esp. from the point of view of industrial automation)"?

Engineering has developed considerably from the old days of proprietary primitive computers/controllers and networks to the present usage of open architecture, IT networks and computer systems. One only has to look at the use of Windows (yes!) and Ethernet. These were previously scorned (and no doubt still despised); but are now key components of our automation and engineering activities. Even fairly "non-IT" networks of instruments using Profibus and Foundation Fieldbus, to name a few, have a significant IT emphasis in terms of using computers to configure (and indeed to program them). The IT departments were initially rather bemused by the increasing sophistication of these systems (both comms networks and PC-based systems) and were rather hesitant to get involved as there was a significant engineering-proprietary nature to them. However, now that there is a clear and marked overlap with IT systems; they are getting involved - often at the behest of management who often don't comprehend the issues involved (frequently resulting in rather heated debates from both side). There is no doubt in my mind that a pure IT guy often has little knowledge about production systems besides a solid understanding of computers hardware and software. I clearly recall an IT programmer being tasked by management to create a structured PLC (programmable controller) program and being bewildered by the difference between the start contact for a 1.5MW Ball Mill and a 100W grease pump for the pinions of the aforementioned ball mill. The consequences were nasty - when the grease pump switch was initiated; the grease pump didn't start, but the ball mill did, by going directly on-line. So keep the IT guys out of your engineering department, but partner closely with them. I believe they generally are not particularly interested in "grubby" engineering and production activities and have more than enough challenges looking after their systems. As Eugene M., a prominent engineering manager in a pulp and paper environment, suggested to us on Thursday:

  • Work closely with the IT department - have regular meetings and exchange intelligence and skills. Use them as a valuable resource to back up your systems (which you have already archived).

Other suggestions are:

  • Ensure the engineering department guys are highly skilled in the IT side of things - networks/computers and computer security activities (firewalls etc). They can then troubleshoot computer problems and configure routers where required, for example.
  • Man the firewalls to the "outside world" with vigour and know-how. This is the defence of the engineering realm, against the hacker barbarians, and is an unrelenting and critical task.
  • See where you can apply new IT techniques in the engineering department - learn from them, but look for robust solutions that match the different environment.

2. Thanks for all the feedback on burn-out of engineers and technicians. Some rather sad stories, but ultimately hopeful and useful. I will certainly mention these new issues for everyone's benefit once I have collated them back at base (camp).

Obviously, we need to remember the words of David Sarnoff when contemplating IT's place in the scheme of things:

"The human brain must continue to frame the problems for the electronic machine to solve".

Yours in engineering learning

Steve

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