I just had a birthday. Not much of a celebration around my house. In fact it passed virtually unnoticed. My step granddaughter’s birthday is the next day. She’s 7 and it’s a really big deal for her.
Much has changed in my 35 years, ooops I mean 53. That holds especially true on the factory floor. My first impression at Procter & Gambles Charmin Tissue Plant in 1981 was the sheer noise of it all. Just a terrible drone that made it hard to hear, but it was kind of exciting. All this clanging, clacking, products whizzing by, getting wrapped, put into boxes and moved into semis, it was overwhelming. Incredible energy and flow to it all.
It seemed like a really cool place to work. You could actually make machines do things right before your eyes. Much more fun that writing some PC program that displayed characters and logic on a screen.
In those days there wasn’t DeviceNet, EtherNet/IP, Modbus TCP or even AS-i bus. We didn’t even have serial comms that I can remember. Just one big line shaft that drove the entire machine or a series of belts or chain drives. The Gear Box was the high tech wonder device and Mechanical Engineers were revered. They argued endlessly about those gear boxes. How many to use, how big to make them, how to prevent “backlash”…they were real gurus.
In those days, the PLC vendor ruled. You bought an Allen-Bradley system, a TI system, a Modicon system, and that vendor got everything. It was a completely captive customer market. No need for any other vendors stuff here. We’ll supply it all, they said.
It was the Wild West days of factory automation, especially in Detroit where the auto companies were making endless piles of cash. There was gold on the streets in those days.
Selling was also a lot different in those days. I was always told they used the philosophy “Get Em Drunk, Get Em Laid, Get The Order”. I never witnessed it, but I don’t doubt a lot of that was true. Sales guys (and they were all guys as were their customers) had virtually unlimited expense accounts. I hear tell that the money flowed like water.
The pendulum has now swung the other way. GM is on life support, Chrysler may yet fall and Ford is holding on by its fingernails. Detroit is impoverished and I read today that even the bars are closing and dancers are leaving the business.
So what does the future hold? Given that I’ll be working for the next 20 or 30 years (What else would I do with myself?), where are things headed. We’ll, I’ll make a few predictions:
- Mechanicals had their time, Electricals had theirs. Now we Software guys are having our time with 70% to 90% of a project being software. Alas time will change that as well. Everything will be reconfigurable in the future. There will be little to no software to write, it will all be included.
- Logic will move to the devices, there will be no central processors with thousands of lines of code.
- Over the next 20 years DeviceNet, Profibus and the rest will die off – lots of reasons for this including no silicon in chips to support things like Profibus and a move away from Master Slave systems.
- The big PLC companies will decline in importance
- Everything will be a PLC (or have logic capabilities) with I/O, communications, logic, HMI – even things like photo-eyes will be programmable
- Everything will be reconfigurable – machine concept to first production run in days not years
- There will be some new standard for communications that everything will use and it will be built right into the silicon. It will obsolete Profinet, EtherNet/IP and all the rest.
- LEDs will replace all incandescent. Windows will be able to let the sunlight in or generate light using LED technology. Why, because that would be cool.
Despite our current problems Americans are still the most determined, innovative and resourceful people on the planet. I’m lucky to be born in the US. We’ll survive and continue to find ways to succeed. I for one am looking forward to it.