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A society for us all

Industry analyst and commentator, Jim Pinto, muses about the process and control engineering industry today, including the future of robots in the factory and the ISA’s new name in the industry.

ISA goes international

In October 2008, society delegates voted overwhelmingly to change the name of ISA to International Society of Automation (formerly Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society). This name signifies that ISA is now focused on the broader aspects of ‘automation’ and aims to be a catalyst for creation and promotion of the automation profession of the future, marketing the society’s core competencies to automation professionals around the world. In a global market environment, international growth is vital to the future success of ISA.

Today, one can sense a spirit of new drive and determination within the ISA organisation to make it much more than it has been for several years. In addition to strong volunteer leadership, the existing team of dedicated people with years of industry knowledge and experience has been expanded to generate new growth through several focused objectives.

Tim Feldman, director of global operations, is working to transform ISA into a global organisation. Feldman travels the world holding meetings in key markets with suppliers, end-users, integrators, government officials, and academia to assess needs and review potential business partners who can deliver ISA’s core competencies to the automation profession.

No other organisation anywhere in the world covers these important functions to serve the global automation business. Stimulated and rejuvenated by its new name, ISA expects and intends to expand world membership and become truly international.

There are some ISA members who don’t like the change. One long-time German member resigned because he felt that the change of name “implied claim of ISA to world dominance in automation engineering.”

Robots in war

Experts have already issued warnings over the threat posed to humanity by new robot weapons. Consider this moral problem: In the future, will countries boast about killing thousands of enemy combatants without any casualties of their own?

The US Defense Deptartment continues to invest heavily in robotic technology that will take the place of human soldiers in battle. Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have already flooded the battlefield.

There are about 6,000 robots in use by the Army and Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by October 2006 unmanned aircraft had flown 400,000 flight hours.

Currently there is always a human in the loop to decide on the use of lethal force. However, this will change; autonomous weapons are being developed, that will decide where, when and who to kill. It may not be long before robots become a standard terrorist weapon to replace suicide bombers.

This is the start of an international robot arms race. Many countries are working to develop robotic weapons, with the US having the biggest budget, expecting to spend an estimated US$4 billion by 2010.

Other countries too are working on robot weapons programs — Europe, Canada, South Korea, South Africa, Singapore and Israel. China, Russia and India are also working on development of unmanned aerial combat vehicle. Where is this robot-race leading?

The optimists say that Defense spending always leads to advances that bring technology to other areas. Who doesn’t long for help with household chores? After almost five years, I’m still using my Roomba vacuum cleaning robot. Affordable service robots will soon be able to do heavy, dirty, monotonous or irksome tasks.

Business lessons from biology

As the world accelerates, serious problems keep occurring again and again because of old thinking. What’s needed is a profound shift in how we see the world and how we behave.

As we move from a mechanistic to an evolving ‘biological’ view of business, we begin to see that adaptation and flexibility are important for continued success.

In an article in the Sept/Oct 08 issue of World Future Society’s ‘Futurist’ magazine, Arnold Brown compares biological adaptation with traditional business mechanisms. An insightful 1999 book, ‘The Biology of Business’ shows how top-down management methods no longer work in an age of fast technological change and world competition.

Capitalism has two primary goals: Growth and Profit. The lessons of the dinosaurs demonstrate that Growth becomes a burden – the things that can sustain growth quickly run out. Efficiency (profit) is also elusive in fast-changing environments. Success through making things more efficient comes only if the world doesn’t change. But, there’s ALWAYS change.

Efficiency has an unfortunate tendency to de-generate into bureaucracy. Doing everything by-the-book can become farcical. Yesterday’s rules for efficiency may be counter-productive for tomorrow. Focusing on efficiency makes ‘process’ more important than it should be.

In a changing world, striving for efficiency dissipates energy. Throw away your archaic process and procedures manuals – by the time they’re written, they’re obsolete. Instead, people must be free to manage themselves and come up with new solutions. Flexibility and adaptability are the best ways to gain the competitive edge.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator

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