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Real-time process control has been effectively applied across industrial operations to improve operational efficiency for decades. In fact, the application of real-time process control for efficiency improvement is so mature that many industrial professionals have suggested that the “Golden Age of Control” is behind us. They are referring to the 1960s and 1970s when thousands of control engineers were taking on the most challenging process control problems industry had – and solving them. Over the past three decades the number of control engineers in both automation suppliers and industrial companies has declined dramatically. There seems to be a general belief that all the most daunting control challenges have already been solved and that there is little left for control engineers to take on. I believe this perspective is way off base.
The primary purpose for automation systems is as delivery vehicles for real-time control. I find it fascinating that as the number of control engineers has been in decline as the number of automation engineers has been on a continual increase. That is, there are more engineers focusing on the technology of the automation platforms while there are less and less focusing on the functions automation systems provide – real-time control.
To this point in time, most process control, whether manual or automatic or whether feedback or predictive, has been applied to improve the efficiency of industrial operations. Efficiency improvement is important but is only one area in industrial companies requiring real-time controls. As the speed of industrial business has continually increased over the last decade, triggered by the deregulation of electric power grids, a number of business variables that had been stable for months at a time have started to demonstrate real-time variability. Traditional approaches to try to manage the profitability of industrial operations on a monthly basis just do not work anymore. Improving the profitability of industrial operations is a real-time control problem requiring good, business-oriented, control engineers.
Profitability is one of a number of industrial domains that had been effectively managed on a daily, weekly or monthly basis 10 years ago, but require real-time controls today. Other domains include reliability, safety risk, environmental risk and security risk. All of these domains, including efficiency of course, require the skills only found in control engineers.
Perhaps the first Golden Age of Control is behind us, but I believe a new Golden Age of Control is on the rise!