Why IT matters

Welcome to Control Engineering's new column addressing information technology (IT) issues for control engineers. The need for this column grows greater every day as IT becomes much more usable and more used by control professionals. Yet, as control professionals, we do not normally think of ourselves as using IT in our everyday work.


Welcome to Control Engineering 's new column addressing information technology (IT) issues for control engineers. The need for this column grows greater every day as IT becomes much more usable and more used by control professionals. Yet, as control professionals, we do not normally think of ourselves as using IT in our everyday work.

Why exactly is IT becoming so important in our industry? Three reasons: business, technology, and professional development.

The business reason is easy to understand. There is high value in correct, real-time production information and integration of the shop floor with the top office. Companies are integrating the "make" part of the supply chain into their optimized supply chains. This requires near real-time information from the shop floor and that the shop floor be more responsive to changes in products and schedules. Many companies can no longer run on weekly production schedules and weekly inventory updates. They need to send down multiple schedules per shift, and they need to know within minutes of when production has finished. Complicating the integration problem is that back-of-the-envelope calculations show that only 0.01% of the data we collect on the shop floor has direct business value. Companies need control professionals to identify the important information in the sea of real-time data, collect the correct information from the shop floor, and make it available to business systems. This puts engineering and IT departments on a collision course as they are forced to work together to implement real-time business processes.

Secondly, IT is important because the underlying technologies of control systems and IT systems are rapidly converging. We are using standard PCs, standard networks, standard operating systems, and standard computer languages in our control solutions. Most new control systems are now based on standard Microsoft Windows technology, Intel microprocessors, and Ethernet. New control system devices are typically networked, programmable, and remotely manageable using standard IT systems. Modern control system design also now requires an understanding of software design and computer system validation methodologies, security and redundancy issues, and network design constraints. All of these technologies and methods are part-and-parcel of the IT world. As engineers we need to understand the strengths that IT can bring to control systems and the weaknesses we have to address.

Finally, IT is important because it will affect our careers. Manufacturing companies are not ignoring the increasingly networked nature of control devices and the fact that these devices will have more processing capability, memory, and network throughput than many 1980 mainframe computers. In fact, some companies are combining IT professionals and control engineers into single departments. In these companies control engineers are being treated as IT professionals with specialized training and expertise in real-time applications, real-time programming languages, and control theory. IT departments are expecting that control professionals will also have knowledge in the standard areas of IT.

Because of these changes, control professionals will need to understand currently available IT solutions. These solutions will become part of the standard tool kit that we will bring to control problems. To help you become more familiar with IT technologies, each of my columns will focus on a specific IT issue or class of technology. It will include real examples of IT technologies used in control systems and personal opinion. Some of the first issues to be addressed include how to achieve stability and consistency in the changing IT environment, how to accomplish control networking using IT solutions, and how to design long-lasting solutions for control system integration.

Author Information

Dennis Brandl is the president of BR&L Consulting, a consulting firm focusing on manufacturing IT solutions, based in Cary, N.C. dbrandl@brlconsulting.com

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