Sys.Build – time now to take stock of your skill set

Dear Editor,

Congratulations on your new section, Sys.Build. There is a need for a specialist publication dealing with the technical issues arising from the tremendous impact that new software technologies are having on process monitoring and control systems.

The scope and speed of developments is astounding, and will bring about traumatic change, and the degree of trauma will be proportional to the flexibility of the traditional instrument and control engineer.

Maybe the time has come to separate the two specialisations, i.e. measurement and control, from the information processing systems, because I for one may need to go back to college to learn about these new technologies. Indeed, even colleges are having difficulties keeping up with developments – hence the need for your excellent editorial coverage and applications summaries.

For example, I have been trying to promote the wider use of fieldbus in the water industry, and it is interesting that engineers appear to be amongst the most cautious and sceptical. Business-orientated managers, on the other hand, can usually see the advantages quickly, and are taking Internet technologies seriously. How significant is it that Richard Heathcote, Bulmer’s IT project manager, has just `taken process automation under his wing’?

As for systems integrators, I have been trying to anticipate their future. It is very difficult to predict the survivors, as there is no established role-model.

At one end we have the `advanced panel-builder’ (maybe unfair but part of the purpose of my letter is to provoke debate in these pages), good with PLCs and ladder, but lacking software engineering skills.

Can these companies survive? Just maybe, as all these clever productivity tools which enable it to be easy for the end-user will also empower the panel builder to tackle more ambitious projects, particularly if he really understands his customers’ process and business needs.

Hopefully we won’t need such (expensive) sophisticated documentation and software engineering skills.

How about the other end of the scale, the `software house’, specialists at building complex architectures and integrating business and real time applications. Doesn’t all this intranet technology make it simple for me to do it myself over the network, cutting out the middle-man?

Even at the individual level, 20 years in the industry is no longer adequate protection. As the benefits of technology transfer begin to take hold, does it matter whether my plant is making ice-cream or treating wastewater ( I guess it does to some people!)?

After all, it will simply become a case of plugging together a few relevant software applets, downloaded from a library, to provide an impressively rich functionality for the control and maintenance of pumps, valves and process equipment. Development of tools, such as STEP, will render the old fashioned engineer redundant anyway.

At the end of the analysis, maybe one just needs to take a deep breath. Maybe an Internet course on version control should be a winner? Or maybe that’s an article for a future edition? In the meantime, I will continue to watch your Sys.Build supplement with great interest.

{{Laurie Reynolds,Thames Water Utilities,Manor Farm Road, Reading.}}