Running the plant has become a matter of adopting technology and adapting to it. In 2011, the world of automation and control saw a wide range of technology advances, from software to integrated safety, and from cloud computing to collaboration between control and IT.
2012 will see an expansion of new technologies as tools introduced in 2011 get deployed. The leading technology -- whether wireless systems or diagnostics -- is going mostly into greenfield plants, and most of those tend to be in Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America -- low-cost labor areas. Even so, some of the new technology is also appearing in brownfield developments in North America and Europe.
What we'll see through the deployment of new technology is higher productivity, greater throughput, and safer plants. These developments in technology are beginning to draw young engineers. After all, the plant can now be run like a video game. Older engineers have been leery of new technology, while the recently graduated engineers find the technology the most attractive aspect of running a plant.
Click the image below to start a slideshow highlighting automation & control technologies that will flourish in 2012:
Increasing Simulation in Automation
Plant updates can be tested before operators throw the switch on the control system. The use of simulation will likely expand considerably in 2012. Simulation is being used in new plant development, plant updates, and in configuring the plant for new products or for greater optimization.
The advantage is the ability to test the system before it is deployed. The result is a significant reduction in set-up costs -- both labor and time –- and greater optimization. Plant operators report that the reduction in set-up costs alone covers the cost of using simulation. This photo shows an example of simulation used to configure robots.
(Source: Simx Simulation.)
You're right, a lot of low-priced consumer goods went offshore first in this huge manufacturing shift. It wasn't just assembly anymore, but the full bore. But what was changing in the late 80s was the fact that the entire assembly and manufacturing of all kinds of higher-ticket goods were going offshore, like electronics, as well as their entire support systems, including technical documentation and, eventually, much of engineering. I can remember attending several seminars in the early 2000s put on by professional organizations that were supposed to help tech writers and engineers somehow morph themselves into....accountants and real estate agents. I'm not kidding.
Yes, I, too, remember this happening in the 1980s. Much of it then was toys. Electronics followed as the factories become more sophisticated and EMS companies grew substantial enough to win trust. The real rush that came in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it took on a new life. I remember vendors and distributors noting that companies were not even thinking it through.
You know, Rob, what the tech writers union found out at the time was that major Silicon Valley employers had been gradually offshoring jobs for about 10 years and keeping it a huge secret. This was not rumors, but facts. They already had in the works the same plans for engineering jobs. By the time we found out what was happening, critical mass was being reached, so that's why such a huge dropoff happened so fast. It took a lot less than 10 years for the shift in engineering jobs, mostly because the infrastructure was now in place that could support offshoring of both job types. Apparently they started with tech writing because we had less of a clue what was going on than engineers and weren't thought likely to scream as loud (nor would anyone care as much if we did). Essentially the same thing had been going on with manufacturing, in parallel. I wrote a story about offshoring manufacturing as long ago as 1989 for Computer Design News.
Yes, I know what you mean. I was on the staff of Electric News during that crash. Companies were reporting 40% drops in business, almost overnight. Everyone was running to China without even thinking it through.
Some products won't come back (cellphones, laptops). But the rush is over according to outsourcing analyst firms. Some companies are coming back, some are deciding not to go to Asia.
With all the commody manufacturing in China, they will probably remain number one. But there is still tons of manufacturing here in the number two country.
Rob, thanks for this info. That's heartening and inspiring. I didn't know the offshoring wave had turned. I remember seeing hints of that a few years back and being cynical about those hints continuing and growing. I was at offshoring ground zero in tech writing in 2000-2001 when the news about it broke. We had 70% unemployment rates in that industry in that year. This was a huge industry crash, just before offshoring hit engineers. More recently, when wages started to increase in the Asian and other outsourced-to countries I hoped the wave would turn back, although it's unfortunate that it's at least partly because our own workers are getting lower pay.
Yes, one of the secrets of U.S. manufacturing is that it's robust. We were the largest manufacturing country until just two years ago when China passed us. Our labor costs are coming down lately. This is partly because there is less union, so some of the cost is coming from lower worker wages. Plus, our plants processes are driving down the cost of manufacturing through automation.
Companies such as Texas Instruments are choosing the U.S. for new plants. The outsourcing wave is over, and now brand owners are thinking more in terms of locating plants near the markets. That means Eastern Europe for Europe and the southern U.S. for North America. So a good chunk of manufacturing is coming back to the U.S. recently.
Thanks, that makes sense. This is clearly a multi-variable equation! It's also good to know that there are any products being manufactured over here, and even better to know that they're complex and high-ticket items.
There is probably a factor of how complex the products getting manufacturied are. The low-cost geographies tend to produce products that are commoditized. Complex medical products and military products are staying in North America.
More often than not, with the purchase of a sports car comes the sacrifice of any sort of utility. In other words, you can forget about a large trunk, extra seats for the kids, and more importantly driving in snowy (or inclement) weather. But what if there was a vehicle that offered the best of both worlds; great handling and practicality?
Science fiction author Isaac Asimov may have the best rules for effective brainstorming and creativity. His never-before-published essay, "On Creativity," recently made it to the Web pages of MIT Technology Review.
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