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Welcome to the official blog of the International Society of Automation (ISA).

This blog covers numerous topics on industrial automation such as operations & management, continuous & batch processing, connectivity, manufacturing & machine control, and Industry 4.0.

The material and information contained on this website is for general information purposes only. ISA blog posts may be authored by ISA staff and guest authors from the automation community. Views and opinions expressed by a guest author are solely their own, and do not necessarily represent those of ISA. Posts made by guest authors have been subject to peer review.

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What Is Automation?

This post is authored by Peggie Koon, president of ISA 2014.


In my last post, I shared details about ISA’s Summer Leaders Meeting (SLM), including our first Automation Advisory Council meeting and the strategic visioning and planning sessions that were held and next steps. In that meeting we discussed how ISA’s use of the words “automation” and “automation professional” might make some members of ISA (andRobotic arm holding light bulb members of the automation community, including automation industry executives) feel as if ISA no longer focused on the needs of the control industry or its professionals. During this discussion, it was noted that “automation refers to delivery and control refers to function.” We were also challenged to tell our story more – so that people understand what automation is and all the cool things automation professionals do.

So, what’s my story?

As I have reflected on the AAC meeting and ISA’s strategic goals, the discussion AAC members had about the role of ISA and the difference between automation and control still resonates with me. I keep hearing the phrase: “We need to tell our story” over and over again in my head. I cannot help but recall my years as an automation professional, responsible for process control and plant/process automation at the Graniteville Company, a textile manufacturing company that was later acquired by Avondale Mills. I began my career as a Process Control Manager for Graniteville Company, responsible for process control systems and operations of the 46+ machines (and over 10,000 control points) in the Greg Plant, the dyeing and finishing facility at the company.

During that time all of the automation professionals for the plant—instrumentation technicians, titration operators, process control console operators and control systems engineers, and process automation software programmers, analysts, system engineers and network managers—reported to me. My role was then expanded to include responsibility for automation of plant systems across the company, including automated weaving, inspection, and booking systems (BARCO) for the Greige mills; process control systems for slashing and indigo dyeing; automated finished roll inspection and automated finished roll booking (EVS/BARCO) systems.

If it was on a Graniteville Company plant floor, I proposed a plan for implementing process control and/or process automation to regulate and optimize the operations (people and resources), processes, and work flows associated with it; and my team implemented the plan. When Avondale Mills acquired Graniteville, my role and the company’s automation effort expanded even more to include Avondale facilities in Monroe, Georgia, and Sylacauga, Alabama.

It was during my years as an automation professional at Graniteville that I became involved in ISA. My team and I were able to do many innovative things in automation because of our relationships with process control and process automation vendors and because of the products, services, and the network of experts at our disposal via ISA. That’s my story!

Automation vs. Control: What’s the Difference?

In those days, we talked about process automation and process control as two separate disciplines. In fact, my department was responsible for both process automation and process control at the company, and while skillsets for the two areas of responsibility had some overlap, the responsibilities of the two groups were usually vastly different—complementary but different. When I heard the word automation, I immediately preceded it with the word “process,” which defined a set of requirements completely different from those associated with process control. At that time I did not consider the use (or meaning) of the word automation alone without its “process” companion. At least that’s what I thought back then.

Now take a look at the ISA website’s section entitled, “What is Automation?” That’s a great question. And although we might assume that most people know what automation means, the fact of the matter is that there is still some confusion among ISA members, automation industry leaders, and members of the automation community about ISA’s use of the word automation and its meaning.

So, let’s take a look at the question again, starting at the beginning.

What is Automation?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines automation as “the technique of making an apparatus, a process, or a system operate automatically.”

Ok, so this definition uses a form of the derivative word automatic. The word automatic means (in reference to a machine or device): having controls that allow something to work or happen without being directly controlled by a person (Merriam-Webster online)

What is control?

Merriam-Webster provides several definitions for control: to direct the actions or function of (something); to cause (something) to act or function in a certain way; the ability to exercise restraining or directing influence over:  regulate.

My favorite definition of control comes from theBox and Jenkins’ book, Time Series Analysis, Forecasting and Control, which defines it as follows: “Control refers to our desire to affect the outcome of some process or set of conditions. In the industrial manufacturing environment, knowledge of how the process should behave under normal conditions is used to identify and eliminate process variations. Both manual and automatic techniques are utilized in this effort.”

What is process control?

My favorite definition of process control comes from the Foxboro Company’s Introduction to Process Control, which defines it as: "the regulation or manipulation of variables influencing the conduct of a process in such a way as to obtain a product of desired quality and quantity in an efficient manner. In this sense, process controlrefers to achieving the execution of the control actions required to eliminate the special causes of variation from the process and to achieve desired target values or setpoints for the controlled variables in that process. Both manual and automatic techniques are utilized in this effort.”

So what’s the difference?

A few years after I wrote the paper referenced above. InTech magazine published my article entitled, “Textile Firms Automate to Survive: here’s how Avondale Mills does it.” The article was based on a paper I wrote for ISA entitled Making Change. In the article (and paper) I talk about how my team successfully implemented automation, including process control.

Here’s what I wrote then: “During the past decade, textile companies have accomplished a certain level of process automation by replacing older equipment with newer machines which are micro-processor-based via capitalization. These islands of automation have positively impacted quality, productivity, and overall machine efficiency. Like most companies, textiles recognize that in order to continually compete in the global market-place, they must continue to produce high quality products cost-effectively. …these companies are beginning to utilize computer technology to extend the automation effort from the machine level to the plant floor to the entire company. Process control and process automation are being achieved.

The automation effort that has been extended to every level of the process (and every related job) ensures that productivity is enhanced and that every job is performed more efficiently and cost effectively. The typical levels of automation once resulted in islands of automation not integrating with corporate or other manufacturing systems, causing the information about the process to only be available locally at the machine and plant levels. Integration of production systems with other systems has provided a more pro-active management environment, resulting in the ability to better control the process. In addition, this integration has fostered a more real-time understanding of the state of a facility (and ultimately the company) by making the information from the plant floor machines accessible by the necessary levels of management and support services throughout the company.” The paper includes a case study of Avondale Mills, which lists all of the process control and process automation systems that were implemented by my team.

Notice that in this paper the word automation is used to refer to an effort that includes both process control and process automation.

Let’s look again at Webster’s definition of automation: having controls that allow something to work or happen without being directly controlled by a person.

Now compare this definition (which includes/refers to the root word control twice) to ISA’s definition of automation: "the creation and application of technology to monitor and control the production and delivery of products and services.”

ISA’s use of the word automation is inclusive – the ISA definition includes control!

What about automation professionals? Who are they? Am I included?

Using ISA’s definition, the automation profession includes “everyone involved in the creation and application of technology to monitor and control the production and delivery of products and services.

The automation professional is “any individual involved in the creation and application of technology to monitor and control the production and delivery of products and services.”

……That means YOU!

Does ISA membership provide value to an automation instrumentation technician, an automation engineer, an automation manager, an automation project manager, etc.?

The answer is a resounding “YES.” If you are involved in automation, you are an automation professional. And ISA exists to provide products and services for you and the company you serve—and to be an advocate for the automation profession.

As a reminder, here’s what the ISA site says about the formation of ISA: “ISA officially was born as the Instrument Society of America on 28 April 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. It was the brainchild of Richard Rimbach of the Instruments Publishing Company and grew out of the desire of 18 local instrument societies to form a national organization. Rimbach is recognized as the founder of ISA. On 28 April 1945 a group of visionary thinkers from local instrumentation societies met to organize ISA. Industrial instruments, which became widely used during World War II, continued to play an ever-greater role in the expansion of technology after the war. Individuals like Rimbach and others involved in industry saw a need for the sharing of information about instruments on a national basis, as well as for standards and uniformity. The Instrument Society of America addressed that need.”

The site says that membership grew from 900 in 1946 to 6,900 in 1953 and continued to grow to over 28,000. Because of this phenomenal growth internationally, the ISA Council of Society Delegates approved a legal name change to ISA—The Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society—in the fall of 2000. In October 2008, the Council voted to rename the Society to the International Society of Automation.

The name change was intended to be more inclusive—to provide products and services to individuals around the globe in professions related to automation. In other words, ISA—the International Society of Automation—is for all those individuals around the globe who are involved in automation.

And the new name fits! Today ISA members and community members number almost 37,000 from countries around the globe!

Why is it important to tell our story?

I remember as a process control manager I was often asked to conduct “tours” of Graniteville Company’s control room. The room was filled with ABB/Bailey Controls consoles, rows of I/O cabinets that housed the processors, controllers, I/O Word cloud for Automationcards, etc. Our system was completely fault tolerant, and I always enjoyed asking the operators to demonstrate the batch logic used to automatically set up and run the machines to produce a lot of fabric, to take the primary system offline and demonstrate how the system automatically switched over to its hot back up and continued to control the processes on the machines, never skipping a beat! Those were the days!

When I think about it, it was easy for me to relate to and understand the importance of automation and automation professionals because I was responsible for the process control and process automation systems at my company. And because of my role, I was intimately aware of the impact automation had on the operations, the quality (and quantity) of the products we produced, as well as the revenue generated via the sale of those products. My job depended on how well we controlled costs which equated to controlling every aspect of every step of every process required to produce our products. I lived and breathed automation.

But what about those who are not involved on a daily basis in “the creation and application of technology to monitor and control the production and delivery of products and services”? How do we explain automation to the lay person so she/he not only understands what it is but also understands its value?

I also remember the confounded look on the faces of those men and women who toured our plants. The plant manager would bring these guests into my area first. They had no idea about the processes required to make our fabrics (or any textiles for that matter), and they were both amazed and confounded by the concept that computers were controlling the machines’ mercerization, bleaching, dyeing, and finishing, water and chemical flows, temperatures, speed, pressures, and more.

A part of my job included explaining process automation and process control in lay terms so that they would understand the value proposition. I spoke to literally hundreds of potential customers, members of various boards (of directors), potential partners, and/or investors so they understood the importance and benefits of automation. And I always started with a story—a story about the air conditioning system in their homes, their programmable microwave, or the cruise control system in their car—something to which they could immediately relate. Then I related my story to the control functions being performed by the systems in the Control Room.

Today we still need to tell our story in a way that explains the automation value proposition. But as I have mentioned in previous articles there is a growing shortage of people like youautomation professionals who make process automation and process control possible. So how do we tell our story in such a way that we promote STEM education and encourage the next generation to pursue STEM careers? How do we stimulate interest and excitement about automation as a profession?

Are you an advocate for automation as a profession? When’s the last time you told your story?

The Automation Advisory Council said that we ought to tell our story. Twenty years ago I wrote several papers about process control and process automation. A dive into the ISA archives will reveal “oldie but goodie” titles like Understanding the Role of the DCS: Real-time Optimized SPC/SQC ), Controlling the Blues, Textile Firms Automate to Survive- Here’s How Avondale Does It, Making Change, Are you in Control, Managing More with Less, and more.

Today there are new stories to tell. Powerful stories about automation as an exciting profession filled with opportunities. Whether it’s a 60-second ride at Disney World that is programmed to take you up, then turn you upside down then sideways before returning you safely to the drop off, or a car that senses an object in your rear and automatically stops, or a plane that runs on “auto pilot” at the flip of a switch to help ensure that it lands safely, or a machine that automatically manufactures products, or a shuttle that carries you from earth to the moon keeping the conditions just right for life in space, or a car that automatically shuts down its engine when you press the brakes and your speed goes to zero then restarts when you accelerate …automation is everywhere!

The more things change, the more they stay the same….

When I wrote those papers years ago, I had to justify automation projects before they were approved for implementation. Today we live in a world where automation is expected and almost every business has automated processes. And almost company either already employs or will employ automation professionals. Even a company like Amazon posted an opening for an automation engineer! How cool is that! There has been phenomenal growth in STEM careers in the US. What I love most about this phenomenal growth is the innovative way automation is being used not only to improve business processes but to enhance our lives and optimize our use of earth’s natural resources.

So, while the times have changed, what has not changed is the need for more STEM education so that these much needed opportunities in the automation profession can be filled. According to the Automation Advisory Board, to get people interested in automation and control, we have to tell our story.

ISA and the Automation Federation (AF) are involved in programs like FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and Project Lead the Way to help students get excited about automation. In addition, ISA, in conjunction with the US Department of Labor and industry experts, has developed an Automation Competency Model. The model defines requirements for all levels of the automation profession, helping employers better understand what skills they should look for in an applicant.

And students can refer to the model to determine which courses/certificates/certification programs are required for different automation fields/positions. And, finally, colleges and technical institutes can also use the model to build competency-based curricula.

And ISA and the AF are working with Cleveland Community College (CCC) and the federal government to develop Mission Critical Operations training programs that encompass STEM education for those who support mission critical operations of a company, including industrial/operational and information technology.  This government-funded program will be piloted at CCC, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and other colleges to develop a template/competency model for this type of STEM education at technical, community, and four-year colleges across America. Read more about it at:

ISA is telling our story! When’s the last time you shared yours?

Get involved!

About the Author
Peggie Koon_2Peggie Koon, Ph.D., is vice president of audience at Chronicle Media and The Augusta Chronicle, which are part of Morris Publishing Group, LLC, a privately held media company based in Augusta, Ga. Prior to joining Morris, Peggie spent more than 25 years developing IT systems for process automation and process control in a variety of industries, including automotive, nuclear defense, aerospace, nuclear reprocessing, thermal ceramics and textiles. Peggie assumed her first ISA leadership position in 1996 as membership chair of the Management Division and has held a variety of prominent leadership roles in the Society. She earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Smith College in Northampton, Mass. and completed graduate studies in industrial and systems engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She received a doctorate in management information systems from Kennedy Western University in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Connect with Peggie:
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A version of this article also has been published in ISA Insights.

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