Why the integration push?

Since my arrival at Control Engineering, I've dedicated considerable column space to advocating the notion that engineers should notice all the talk surrounding the integration of plant-floor controls and automation to enterprise-level systems. For many engineers, this issue was put aside in the late 1990s after numerous failed attempts at such linkage.

04/01/2004


Since my arrival at Control Engineering , I've dedicated considerable column space to advocating the notion that engineers should notice all the talk surrounding the integration of plant-floor controls and automation to enterprise-level systems. For many engineers, this issue was put aside in the late 1990s after numerous failed attempts at such linkage. However, since then, various Web and advanced computing technologies have worked their way into shop-floor devices and systems, making the much-ballyhooed shop-floor-to-top-floor connection a potential reality.

More important than technology are the requirements of the marketplace. Fast-changing customer demands are the catalysts behind development of newer technologies and their adoption within industry.

I was afforded an opportunity recently to speak with Alain Dedieu, VP marketing, industry market business, North American division, for Schneider Electric, about customer-driven changes in manufacturing and how it's affecting engineers and their roles in controls-to-enterprise system linkage.

"Consumer behavior has definitely changed. That's why there's more shop-floor-to-top-floor focus," Dedieu says. "We all have to be more flexible. For example, five years ago, Schneider was not focusing on the textile industries for economic reasons. Now we're getting back into this in Europe because that's where a new area of demand is coming from." Adapting to economic conditions and consumer demands is also affecting how and when products are released, says Dedieu, and that affects how engineers go about their jobs. "You already have to be thinking about the end of life for a product before it's even introduced," he says. With the whole beginning-to-end timeframe in mind, you realize that if you miss a launch by three months, it can have a big effect. "That's another reason for having this level of shop-floor-to-top-floor connectivity." Each piece has to be in synch with the other. "Because if you're not first to market, you lose advantage."

The traditional control engineer is moving toward these new concepts, says Dedieu, pushed by the current manufacturing and economic environment. "New engineers see this as an opportunity, because it's more consistent with the education they've had [working with computers]."

Dedieu expects that in the near future, there will be fewer workers in manufacturing, but more control engineers because a higher level of expertise will be needed as more advanced manufacturing work stays in Europe and the United States and more basic manufacturing moves to Asia.

"Things have always changed, only now they are changing faster. Training has to be adapted so engineers can adapt," says Dedieu. "Engineers have to have the education for the jobs [the industry is] ready to pay for."

dgreenfield@reedbusiness.com





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