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Heard on the Automation & Control Beat

July 18 edition of weekly news roundup from the world of engineering automation and control.

I'm kicking off a new weekly roundup of the latest and greatest tips and tidbits from the wonderful world of automation and control. Welcome!

In our recent quick poll, 46 percent of respondents said their workloads, as engineers, has increased a lot over the past year. That's in keeping with declining headcounts, which have forced stress-inducing productivity improvements. It's pretty much the case that, if you're fortunate enough to be working, your workload is high.

So it's refreshing to see recent good news on the engineering employment front. Last month, I wrote about Siemens's hiring spree: The company is looking for 809 engineers across the United States, plus another 215 in research and development, and 254 in manufacturing operations.

Now, comes word that Applied Manufacturing Technologies sees a "robotic renaissance" on the horizon. Specifically, AMT points to President Obama's $500-million Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, which contains $70 million for a robotics initiative, as a driver of jobs growth. AMT's own immediate plans are more modest -- it'll add 40 engineers over the next year and a half.

If your job is in the factory or manufacturing sector -- forced segue, that -- then you'll be interested in the Design and Manufacturing Midwest conference, which is coming to Chicago on September 20. With 850 exhibitors, the floor of the show, which is run by Design News's parent company UBM, is the highlight of the event. There will also be some interesting sessions, including on how to tackle the "fuzzy front end" of product development, and how to implement Design for Assembly parts-count reduction techniques.

An upcoming show that has me packing early is National Instruments' big NIWeek conference on August 2. (Who doesn't want to go to Austin in the summer?) One typically thinks of National in terms of test and instrumentation, rather than automation. However, its LabVIEW graphical programming environment is, indeed, heavily used in industrial control, and the company positions itself for such applications.

I'd submit that graphical tools will increasingly be useful in situations that formerly used traditional programming models. This will increase as the shift towards interdisciplinary engineering throws software development more and more into the laps of hardware folk.

You can't speak of software without worrying about security. Actually, that's something of a new-found concern for the automation and control sector. The catalyst is Stuxnet.

The worm that burrowed its way into the bowels of Iran's weapons-grade uranium production facility has scared the stuffing out of factory and process automation engineers. Sure, most plants aren't high-value hacker targets. Yet most are sitting ducks, because security has been neglected far longer than in the information-technology sector. "We can't tear out all our PLCs," said one engineer at the recent Siemens Automation Conference. "So we're going to have to protect them."

Wondering how distributors like Allied, Arrow Avnet, Digikey, Mouser, and Newark/Element 14 stack up? Then check out sister site EETimes' recent "Top 25 Global Distributors" article, available here as a downloadable PDF or as a Nxtbook digital magazine. (Gotta say, I miss paper. I was recently telling a non-techie here that when I was a teenager, each year I anxiously anticipated the arrival of the new Allied catalogue. Stunned silence was the not-unexpected reaction.)

OK, that's it for the maiden edition of my blurbtastic review of all things automation. If you come across any good tidbits, be sure to email me at [email protected].

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