Emerson”s new Device Dashboards are designed for optimal ease of use and productivity. Research and analysis of more than 100 workers in key plant job functions was used to develop these new interfaces, which are among the first products of Emerson’s Human Centered Design initiative. Photo courtesy of Emerson Process Management (www.emersonprocess.com).

This week at the Emerson Global Users Exchange in Orlando, one of the core themes of this annual conference and expo was usability. At surface level, this may not seem like such a revolutionary topic. However, if you consider the underlying trends responsible for Emerson’s drive toward technology simplification, they offer an official acknowledgment of those mumblings and grumblings we’ve heard coming from engineering vets for years now – i.e., plant and field operations worldwide are suffering from a dramatic shortage of engineering expertise, so much so that process technology providers are being pushed not only to deliver more highly automated and sophisticated systems, but also to make those systems so easy to use that an individual with minimal experience can effectively operate them.

Steve Sonnenberg, business leader for Emerson’s Process Management division, made the case during his keynote address that as skilled automation professionals continue to opt for retirement and the current global economic situation forces more layoffs, companies are left with relatively inexperienced maintenance and operations personnel. As such, he says companies need technologies that are easy to use and provide the most relevant data points in a format that enables a relatively inexperienced workforce to make prudent decisions in the most efficient manner possible. “[Companies today] want to drive the car, not build it,” said Sonnenberg.

For me, it was quite the revelation to hear a major supplier of fluid handling technology and automation systems not only formally acknowledge there is a worldwide shortfall in engineering expertise (we’ve all heard that story before), but also to launch a whole research and development initiative to address that lack of engineering knowledge. This leap from mere talk to a technology-based initiative specifically focused on a shortage of engineering talent, for some reason, made the loss of engineering knowhow seem more real and, perhaps, long-lasting.

Emerson’s technology usability focus, which will be overseen by its newly launched Human Centered Design Institute, is the product of five years of customer work-practice analysis. It aims to “make products that are not only reliable, compatible and cost-effective, but also bring about a significant improvement in ease-of-use and workforce productivity.” And while the “human-centered” technologies I saw demonstrated at this year’s Emerson Exchange were quite impressive in terms of the progress they’ve made on the usability front, I couldn’t help but think we’re finally reaching the point where we as humans are now officially competing with machines for jobs.

So it occurs to me, as technology evolves to take a lot of the expertise out of maintenance and operations jobs in the fluid handling segment, the pay scale for jobs in this area figures to fall dramatically. As such, maintenance and operations personnel would be wise to continue their education and training in engineering principles to better position for those highly skilled and better-paying engineering jobs, which figure to become more available as the population of experienced engineers continues to reach retirement age.

— Matt Migliore, Editor