The world of the control engineer has remained remarkably constant for much of this century. Certainly there have been many new innovations, tools, and technologies that have spurred change in the profession over the years, but the control engineers of today often bear a great resemblance to those of the 1950s.
The world of the control engineer has remained remarkably constant for much of this century. Certainly there have been many new innovations, tools, and technologies that have spurred change in the profession over the years, but the control engineers of today often bear a great resemblance to those of the 1950s. As evidence of this, consider that PID loop tuning, the bedrock process underlying much of what a control engineer does, has remained virtually unchanged since the 1940s (see PID feature on page 30).
Because of this relatively steady state among control engineers, the profession is considered by some to have reached commodity status. The problem here is twofold: 1) intelligent people with vast knowledge of complex engineering topics should never be looked upon as commodities, and 2) commodities are replaceable and interchangeable—not good descriptors of a promising career.
While attending the AMR Research conference last month, I had the opportunity to speak with analysts Roddy Martin and Bill Swanton, both of whom have a long history covering manufacturing topics of relevance to plant floor engineers. Discussing the topic of impending changes in the engineering profession, both analysts pointed to an increasing trend in manufacturing business strategy that involves the folding of engineering into the information technology (IT) group.
"On-demand manufacturing is changing the way manufacturing operations are built," Martin says. "This means that changes in your company's market can and will affect changes in your process. As a result, engineers are being asked to think differently about the processes they manage."
While there are many who may look at this as yet another example of the front office forcing change on engineering based on a lack of understanding of what actually happens there, it is more accurate to see this as a shift in thinking on the corporate side. They are starting to think more like engineers.
"More and more thinking at the supply chain level is about process variables and how they affect operations, much like a control loop," says Martin.
The bottom line here is that this shift is creating a tremendous opportunity for engineers. As owners of the mission critical data and processes that enable a business to succeed or fail with on-demand supply chain operations, the engineer is in position to become not just a critical element in the production process, but in the larger business strategy of the company. Approaching this opportunity with the right mindset can make a control engineer a smarter and more valuable part of the business—the furthest thing from a commodity.
I'm interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences regarding the effect on-demand supply chain operations is having on your job.