By Matt Migliore

As Rockwell Automation Fair 2015 came to an end yesterday, I sat back and thought of some compelling takeaways from the week that was. With more than 13,500 global attendees, this year’s Rockwell Automation Fair was a lively exchange of professional knowledge. I had some really interesting conversations and witnessed some really smart presentations by some really smart people.

From a broad-based perspective, I left the Automation Fair with a sense that we’re living in an interesting time in industry. While we tend to think of industry as resistant to change, much of the groundbreaking innovation we’ve seen in the world of technology over the past several decades may ultimately pay the most significant dividends in industrial applications. It’s funny how the world works like that. Here are four key takeaways from Rockwell Automation Fair 2015.

1. IT-OT Convergence Is Happening: During a forum at Rockwell Automation Fair, one of the presenters asked the question, “Do we really need those IT guys on the plant floor?” The room went silent, and you could see a lot of eyes darting back and forth. In the good ‘ole days of industry (bad ‘ole days?), the OT folks didn’t want IT touching their stuff. As the presenter explained, he used to hate it when IT would come out to the plant floor to make a software update. He said no matter what IT touched, it just wouldn’t work the way it should anymore. But that’s all in the past, he said, acknowledging that as digital- and data-focused initiatives continue to emerge within industry, OT needs to leverage expertise on the IT side of the business. So the good ‘ole separation between OT and IT is finally fading, and even the “haters” are now recognizing the value of bringing IT expertise to the plant floor. Oh my…

2. Ethernet as an Enabler: It’s not a secret that Rockwell has placed a big bet on industrial Ethernet, specifically EtherNet/IP, as the key to enabling the seamless flow of data between OT and IT. And Rockwell continued to pound the drum at this week’s Automation Fair, touting the plug-and-play nature of Ethernet and widespread acceptance of Ethernet in the IT world as proof positive that it is the most logical way forward. And while I would like to play the skeptic, I must admit the idea of standard, secure Ethernet makes a lot of sense when you’re talking about a world where the lines between OT and IT are growing more and more blurred.

3. Re-Inventing the Analog Engineer for a Digital World: In October, I attended the GE Minds+Machines conference in San Francisco. During that event, GE CEO, Jeff Immelt, said, “I don’t really consider GE a software company per se, but we’re a company that needs to be based in software to be successful in the future.” On the heels of that conference, GE launched a new ad campaign on TV, which showcases young software developers who are going to work for GE to enable “smart” industry by writing software. But their friends and parents just don’t get it. “GE builds stuff, doesn’t it?”

At Rockwell’s Automation Perspectives media event, I picked up on a common theme. It went something like this: “We all know these people in manufacturing organizations who have achieved rock star status because they can fix anything. But what do they do when things don’t break anymore? They need to reinvent themselves.

For industrial engineers, this reinvention lies in striking a balance between in-depth knowledge of industrial process environments and an information technology sensibility. It’s sort of like taking the whole IT-OT convergence concept and applying it to your professional skill set. Industrial engineers and technical professionals who are able to effectively converge and IT and OT skill set have a bright future ahead of them.

4. The Journey Is Just Beginning: It’s hard to count how many times I heard the word “journey” during my time at Automation Fair and its lead-up media event, Automation Perspectives. Big data is a journey. Smart manufacturing is a journey. The Connected Enterprise is a journey. Data analytics is a journey. Industrial cybersecurity is a journey. And, it’s clear, this journey is just beginning. While Rockwell, its business partners, and its customers showcased some really impressive examples of how data is being used to drive process efficiency in a variety of different application scenarios, you could tell the presenters who told their stories felt they were just touching the surface.

From the municipal water utility to the largest multi-national oil & gas company, I came away from Rockwell Automation Fair 2015 with a sense that the hard work of overcoming the resistance to change in industry has been accomplished, and now it’s time to set our sights on driving process optimization from uptime and availability to quality to sustainability to safety and more. It’s a new day for industry, and it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Matt Migliore has covered technology and industry for 15 years. He can be reached at matt@grandviewmedia.com or 484-255-9032.