Web Media Boosts Automation Knowledge

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Automation systems engineering requires knowledge that is applied across multiple disciplines. Individual skills are expanded through specialized groups within social networks, many organized specifically to share automation knowledge. People feed off one another, adding to each other's ideas and seeing problems, solutions and opportunities from different angles.

This article was published by:
March 2011

Education is just not keeping up with today’s speed of technology change, causing a growing skills mismatch in the industrial automation arena. Today, individual skills are bolstered and expanded through specialized groups within social networks, many organized specifically to share automation knowledge.

Automation systems engineering is important to manufacturing growth, requiring knowledge that is applied across multiple disciplines — electrical, electronic, mechanical, chemical, instrumentation, controls, computers, networking, information processing and more. This mix is simply not available in any traditional university educational curriculum, and, in any case, much of what is learned is quickly made obsolete by technology advancements.

Most automation engineers are involved with designing and building automated systems for process plants or production lines. They work with others to design the system, specify the equipment needed, supervise installation and make adjustments to meet special requirements. The project’s success rides heavily on how flexible the automation system is (to meet demands for changes) and how long the design will last. There’s always a continuous drive for improved productivity. The job is unique and challenging, and provides growth and satisfaction.

Previously, automation engineers depended on learning about the latest products and technology through the materials and courses provided by major automation companies. The ways to learn, approach projects and develop solutions to new problems have changed completely. Most engineers join automation special-interest groups on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like, sharing questions, problems and solutions with the automation community at large. It’s amazing how quickly multiple responses arrive, from people who have applicable knowledge or experience. The productivity results are significant.

This type of knowledge can be also be accessed “on the fly” with smartphones and iPads. Engineers and technicians talk through problems and solve each other’s issues using words, images and video. Indeed, many factories and process plants are providing iPads and equivalents to their engineers and technicians for just that purpose.

There are many “apps” with visual displays and calculators that allow quick-and-easy viewing or troubleshooting for factory or plant automation systems—either developed by automation vendors for their own products or by specialists developing vendor-neutral versions.

Most automation suppliers and end-users have started to leverage social media to connect with the worldwide industrial automation community in a variety of ways, ranging from online forums, wikis and communities, to blogs and micro-blogs. Designed to foster interactivity, forums and wikis provide for sharing of industry information and a platform for Q&A discussions.

Jumping in

Today, most automation vendors have recognized the power of social media relating to the spread of automation knowledge of their own products, and they operate their own blogs and communications channels. Many end-user companies too are developing private versions of Facebook to help their employees, customers and suppliers in all worldwide locations to communicate and exchange ideas.

This type of media interaction is bringing major shifts in learn-shop-and-buy behaviors for customers. It is a practical approach to leverage valuable market insights that have previously been difficult to find. It also helps suppliers to monitor and listen to customer conversations, yielding a clear understanding about what they are talking about, who influences them, what interests them, what motivates them and what drives their behavior. Ultimately, these new mechanisms provide the insights necessary to identify new opportunities and develop creative strategies that provide sustainable competitive advantage.

Collaboration and innovation happen when people get together and feed off one another, adding to each other’s ideas and seeing problems, solutions and opportunities from different angles. Conventional engineering education is becoming outdated; social media provides and enhances up-to-date knowledge and gets results.

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