Control Engineering anniversary recalls impact of technology on industry, life

Transistors, microprocessors pave way to modern manufacturing, automation, and control: Reflections on six decades of publishing reveal how developments in computer hardware, software, storage, and displays dissolved communications barriers, promoted systems integration, added intelligence to simple components, and led to once-thought-impossible achievements today—and a no-holds-barred tomorrow.

By Jeanine Katzel September 1, 2014

A lot can happen in 60 years! Just ask Control Engineering magazine. As we pause to congratulate the publication on six decades in business, it seems appropriate not only to celebrate its success, but also to reflect for a moment on the dynamic, playing-field changes that influenced the world of industrial manufacturing and business press publishing during that time and made this brand what it is today.

Control Engineering stands tall as one among few that has not only lasted, but thrived in an era of exploding technology. A publication that’s endured for 60 years obviously has staying power, achieved by knowing its audience and meeting its ever-changing needs. Ever-changing? Now that’s an understatement. The paradigm shift in technology that has marked these past several decades has altered both how we work and who we are. I know because, although I may not like to admit it, I’ve covered this field for more than half that time. I’ve been there as Control Engineering, as well as other business publications, reported and explained-and continue to report and explain-some of the most dramatic and profound changes ever seen: changes impacting the products and systems in the field and the information systems that bring them to the world.

Ingrained PC thinking

Just how far has technology advanced? Well, not long ago, I was interviewing an engineer from a major HMI software vendor and she said much of today’s young workforce has never known a time without Microsoft Windows. What a change for a world that just a few decades earlier relied on mechanical relays and manual record keeping. And yes, the speaker was a woman. When I started writing technical articles in the mid-1970s, a female engineer was virtually unheard of—and likely unwelcome—in a male-dominated workplace. We have come a long way.

Even merely outlining the major developments this publication has seen and shared would be challenging. Yet in retrospect, a few milestones and memories leave blips in the historical timeline. Ask an engineer what impacted 20th-century technology most and, more often than not, you’ll hear the word "transistor." Only a few years older than Control Engineering itself, this component is the reason we have the integrated circuits and microprocessors that changed the operation of virtually every industrial system—and the lives of us all. It enabled the automation once only dreamed about to become reality, and made science fiction communications commonplace. Through it all, Control Engineering has been there to tell the story.

Telling that story—often convoluted, sometimes uncertain, marked by twists and turns—has not always been easy. Technology that changes faster than editors can report and explain it sometimes looks like smoke and mirrors. With each advancement, whether in processing power, memory capacity, or programmable control, we’d ask not only what it means for automation and control, but also how developers could improve on that. But they did. Recall the introduction of the PLC and its cumbersome programming regimen. Compare it to control today.

Info flows with process

While covering first man-machine interfaces (MMIs), then human-machine interfaces (HMIs), I watched simple annunciator panels morph into complex, interactive, intelligent touchscreens. Asset management grew from the rudimentary tracking of devices and components on the shop floor to monitoring, analyzing, and compiling sophisticated reports and transmitting data to the boardroom and back again. Computer-based tools pervade every aspect of the workplace today; publishing is no exception. I grew from an era where copy was written on IBM Selectric typewriters, set in hot type cast on Linotype machines, etch-proofed as galleys (how many of you even know what those are?), and printed from metal plates burned with film made by "strippers." Today, technology enables immediate access. The responsibilities of editors and readers have skyrocketed. Editors must be more flexible, analytical, and aware in an environment that processes copy as fast as a text transmission. There is little time for thought as they compose, edit, and publish on tablets, proof via smartphone, making revisions up to and, in the case of online material, even after publication. Readers depend on publications to judiciously present only the information they truly need in an era where time is a precious and limited commodity.

Today’s world—editorial, manufacturing, consumer—is unquestionably smoother, faster, simpler, and more precise than it was. Not every advancement has yielded only positive results, as naysayers have been quick to point out. Concerns about security, privacy, safety, and more are legitimate and need to be addressed.

Never say never

Over the years we’ve heard: Disparate networks will never talk to one another. Integration can go only so far. Wireless systems will never have a place in an industrial plant. Use cell phones to monitor a process remotely? Ridiculous! And just as often, we watched the barriers fall away. Progress will not stop. We stand on the threshold of another quantum leap as wearable technology and nano-based components, among others, emerge. Where it will lead can only be left to the imagination. What will it mean for automation and control? Check back with Control Engineering in 60 years and see! I’m confident it will still be providing the latest and greatest with insight and accuracy.

– Jeanine Katzel is a contributing editor to Control Engineering. Reach her at Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

ONLINE September has more information and links.

Key concepts

  • Control Engineering celebrates 60 years.
  • Technologies have changed dramatically from annunciators on a panel to large-screen and wireless mobile HMIs.
  • Never say never as technologies continue to adapt and be integrated.

Consider this

Wearable technologies and nano-based components may be among the next big things applied to the profession of control engineering.

ONLINE extra

See other technology articles from Jeanine Katzel.