Q&A With Kim Miller Dunn
"I think the automation industry is going to be effected by the current global economy like every other industry and job sectorhowever, I may be optimistic, but I don't think the automation industry will be as affected as many other segments within the manufacturing sector."
A resident of Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, Kim Miller Dunn served as the 63rd ISA president in 2008. Kim's current role, as of January 1st, is serving as chair of the Automation Federation. Kim joined ISA in 1986 and is currently a member of Los Angeles Section. She has vast experience in Section, District, Department, and Society activities, including two terms on the ISA Executive Board as District 11 Vice President and Professional Development Department Vice President. She has served as Chair of the Council of Student Affairs and Chair of the Board of Department Vice Presidents, as well as on numerous Society committees and task forces. Kim is currently Director of Sales Development & Support for Emerson Process Management, Rosemount Analytical Liquid Division. She is a graduate of Bakersfield College and California State University, Long Beach with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering. She is a Fellow in the Los Angeles Council of Engineering Societies and is active in the Cub Scouts with her son.
What do you see as the most critical issues facing the automation industry?
I think the automation industry is going to be effected by the current global economy like every other industry and job sectorhowever, I may be optimistic, but I don't think the automation industry will be as affected as many other segments within the manufacturing sector.
The reason is, the only way companies can get more efficient and reduce costs and stay competitive in the global world is by investing in automation. I think that, although the industry will definitely be affected, I don't think it will be as deeply affected as many other areas in the marketplace, especially in the short term. In the long term, I think the outlook is very rosyagain, because the pressure is to remain competitive globally, and the only way you can do it is through automation.
Probably the biggest issue impacting the automation sector is the baby boomer 'bomb' that is effecting every other sector, but probably more so in automation. From a North American perspective, the baby boomer bust is going to greatly impact automation in a negative way, because there has been zero interest in young people entering manufacturing. You drop down to our education system, and there is very little interest in kids going into science and technology and engineering. It's just not a career path that is ever portrayed as being 'cool' by the media or Hollywood.
As a matter of fact, it's usually treated as a very uncool professional path. So that's impacted the number of students who have even entered into it. And then you add to that their parentswho are seeing manufacturing jobs being lost overseas and plants being closed and they don't encourage their kids to go into anything that even remotely resembles manufacturing. Everyone wants to be a CEOalthough that's changing.
How do you see that changing?
Well, I think that right now, in this snapshot period of time we're in, there has been so much negative press at the executive level, and particularly in the finance arena. All these people who went into business degrees in finance, thinking they were going to work on Wall Street or become a day trader, they're seeing their jobs collapse and disappear, and the economy really negatively impacting them.
If you're in manufacturing, with a facility saying they've got to cut costs, and they're not going to give raises they may be cutting benefits, but employee pay isn't being cut by 50 percent or more. Some of these financial folks are seeing their incomes go down to nothing. So some of the best and brightest are rethinking their career choices, and they're not setting out wanting to be a CEO and they're looking at alternatives, which bodes well for science and technology. It's becoming a little more attractive, but there is still that really negative perception that people have of entering the manufacturing sector.
What have ISA and The Automation Federation done to help realign what people's preconceived notions are of these industries?
We're trying to change them. One of the things that ISA has done over the last year is we've had a whole series of articles and efforts on 'automation is cool.' We're trying to reach out, in particular, to the electrical engineers and computer science engineers and explaining that developing a distributed control system software package is not a whole lot different than developing an Xbox game.
There are a lot of similarities. So we're trying to make the connection that these computer games and computer-based technologies that you play with as a kid do have application in the real world. Then we really made a push at our recent Expo down in Houston of bringing in both college students and grade school students, to see what automation is all about. We're trying to make that 'cool' connection, and get them interested in it again. It's a very difficult thing to do. I think that the movie "Iron Man" was the greatest thing in a long time, because it features an inventor who is portrayed as being very cool and eclectic.
We've also developed an automation competency model with the U.S. Department of Labor, which has recently been posted on some of the DOL websites; particularly we're trying to pull in groups like the returning soldiers. It's interesting because a lot of military personnel have great training for entering into the automation and instrumentation and controls field.
They don't necessarily know that they do, but they do. We've developed this competency model and it's just been posted and now we're trying to reach out and say 'if you have X kind of background, here's the type of training you needand by the way, ISA has it to offer to get you into a career path.' Because if you were to stand in a room of 1,000 automation/instrumentation/control systems engineers and/or operators and asked them how many said they wanted to do this when they grew up, five of them might raise their hands.
Most of us land in it by accident. We're really trying to get to the point where people choose to enter the profession, by simply getting the word out there that it exists. Most people just don't think about these job opportunities within a plant.
What types of issues will plant managers be dealing with from a technology investment standpoint?
The other issue, from a North American perspective, is that most of our manufacturing facilities are getting long in the tooth. They're dated and their control systems and instrumentation systems are dated. The challenge for your plant operations manager is how to justify to the executive level the need to invest in automation, because it's very difficult to write a return on investment on it. It's not as cut and dried as in, if you put 'X' process in place, you save 'X' amount of dollars. When you say 'If you put 'X' number of dollars in automation, what's your return?'
What kind of intangibles are they dealing with?
They're dealing with intangibles like, whether they get rid of people. Generally speaking the answer is yes if the automation is done right. Or, they trade the kind of worker that they need. They need fewer operator mechanics, but they need more of a higher level of personnel who understand how to program it, make it work, and integrate it into the system. They probably don't need as many of those higher level people as they do the mechanical operators and stuff, but they tend to be a higher paid individual.
So it's very difficult to get at what the savings is on this, and it's also difficult because most automation increases the throughput and reliability of a plant. It's very difficult to quantify the dollars that saves. It takes someone who really can think aboutif I can increase my throughput by two percent, what does that mean to the bottom line? Or the availability of the plant, meaning how much time over the course of the year is the plant able to operate?
Usually automation increases reliability and uptime, but again, what does that mean to the bottom line? It's a very difficult thing to quantify. Operations managers who are trying to justify spending the money have a difficult time doing that.
The other thing is that the technology is advancing so rapidly that if you're not looking at and investing in leading edge technology, by the time you implement it, it's already dated. So the consumerthe plants themselvesare in a catch 22. Do they want to be the advanced acceptor of technology, and risk whether or not it works? Or do they want to take a look at something that's more proven, but by the time they install it is already out of date?
Have you seen any sort of trend either way?
It depends on the industry and the economics of that industry at the time. If I look at a more progressive industry like the life sciences arenathey are the first to adopt new technology. There are two factors why the life sciences industry is a little quicker to adopt the new technology: One of them is, it's an extremely competitive industry, and they invest billions of dollars trying to come up with new drugs, and out of a hundred that they get to the point where it's in clinical trials, only two may actually make it as a product. So they have to make sure that what makes it is as profitable as possible.
They also tend to have smaller operations, relatively speaking, and therefore the cost of automating their processes may be a little less than something like a car manufacturing facility. But some of your older industries like pulp & paper, car manufacturing, and food manufacturinga lot of them are very old facilities, and they're also under a lot of competitive pressure, but they also have pressure from unions and other external forces, so they have to look at more than just if it will save them money on the bottom line. It might, but sometimes they can't lay off those ten people because the union won't let them.
So are you still contending with people's perceptions of automation and what it means to the job market?
Yesthat's another thing we contend with. You say the word automation, and what people picture are robots. There's so much more to it than that. It's a lot of stuff that you don't see. When I'm talking to someone who's not in the industry and I say I'm an automation professional, I usually need to explain what that means.
To put it in terms that most people can at least comprehend: the thermostat in your house that controls your air conditioning and heat; that's the stuff I sell, but only for industry. It automatically controls somethingwhether it's heat, cooling, flow, chemical parametersall of this stuff is done via computer and electronics, whereas it used to be done by people by hand. It's more real time; it's constantly updating, giving new information, and adjusting the process.
You can still find guys who say 'I can do it better than the control systems because I can take a look at the flame and know that it's not rightor adjust the flow of the fuel feed.' You probably can, but you can't do it real time, every minute of the day, 24 hours a day.
And what happens when these folks retire and take all of that visual knowledge with them?
Right. And it takes years and years of training to get to that point. We live in a world where, if you're going to hire some young graduate out of school, you want them to be productive within six months. In the automation world, very few college graduates are productive within six months. It's just not stuff you learn in school. But I think relatively speaking, the automation profession right now is a pretty secure one… it's just really steady. You don't usually hear about automation professionals being laid off; it happens, but not very often. There's a constant need for automation professionals.