Sewing up pockets of automation

I am reading a fascinating book: Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In addition to enjoying Gilbert’s logical mind and witty writing, I am exploring new ideas about how the mind works, including the human tendency to “misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our satisfactions.


I am reading a fascinating book: Stumbling on Happiness , by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In addition to enjoying Gilbert’s logical mind and witty writing, I am exploring new ideas about how the mind works, including the human tendency to “misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our satisfactions.” He reveals what scientists know about our brains’ abilities to imagine the future and remember the past, and how difficult it is to consider new possibilities—all of which is helpful whether you’re optimizing plant operations or designing an HMI screen.

Our human brain’s ability to predict how much we will enjoy something has a lot to do with how the choice is presented, what else we’re comparing it to, and how we’re feeling at the time, says Gilbert. It makes me think that we owe it to ourselves to try a new thing physically, in order to think in a new way.

In May, process industries editor Peter Welander met with the automation team of a large company at an off-site event. The team is contemplating stitching together the company’s “pockets of automation,” standardizing control hardware and software, and increasing communication above the PLC level. The ranking manager in charge had told his bosses that they could expect a significant costs savings payoff from the work of this group. Peter was one of the participants, presenting possibilities and facilitating discussion regarding how. Based on the group’s participation and ability to imagine, Peter reports that they have “tremendous potential to succeed.”

So, give yourself some room to move. Gather at the science center for a brainstorming session. Consider how your HMI interface is or isn’t like the homepage of your favorite sports Website. Download a podcast to your MP3 player and ponder, say, motion control trends while you’re working out. (There are new podcasts online right now on from Control Engineering’s Mark Hoske on industrial Ethernet, and Yaskawa’s John Payne on motion control, among others.)

We don’t need a Harvard psychologist to remind us that doing the same thing in the same way can lead to staleness. But, Gilbert does it so well, I’ll let him close: “Among life’s cruelest truths is this one: Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition….Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage.” To combat this tendency, he says, administer liberal doses of variety and time.

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