Last month I spent a few days at a user conference on industrial automation, and it was an eye-opening experience. I listened to the vendor make a case for the latest crop of techno buzzwords — asset management, preventive maintenance, predictive maintenance, etc. — promoting each with technologies that profess to bring such concepts to life. But all the users wanted to know was, “What were the business results achieved by implementing the program?”

Understandably so. I mean the technology for enabling a predictive maintenance program, for example, requires a significant investment, not only in software, but also in new equipment that can interface with the software.

For those of you not “in the know,” predictive maintenance is a concept whereby the operating condition of equipment is monitored on an ongoing basis, and users are provided with diagnostic information in real-time so they can perform maintenance on underperforming systems before they fail completely. In theory, by employing a predictive maintenance program, users will be able to minimize downtime, thus enabling the process to operate more efficiently and limiting equipment repair and replacement costs. Problem is, I get the vibe users aren’t buying it yet.

“How has predictive maintenance affected the maintenance bottom line?” asked one user at the conference. But the users speaking in favor of the concept didn’t really have an answer. They were in the early stages of developing their predictive maintenance programs, and weren’t armed with any concrete metrics.

Nevertheless, the need for automation is undeniable. Whether it be predictive maintenance or some other system that enables more efficient operation, I believe it’s time for a leap of faith.

According to Dave Woll, vice president of consulting for ARC Advisory Group, “By the year 2010, more than 65 percent of people that are operating our processes are not going to be there — they’re going to be retired.”

That’s right, the Baby Boom is no longer, cue the Social Security
Boom. And 2010 will be here before you know it.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a labor force of 162.3 million individuals in 2012 and expects that the economy will require 165.3 million jobs to be filled. So, beyond the basic need for overall plant efficiency, automation figures to be a critical issue going forward because, quite simply, there soon may not be enough flesh and blood to get the job done.

This leap of faith need not be a blind one though. While the user community is primarily in the early stages of implementing such newfangled automation systems as predictive maintenance, there is a wealth of research available to help you pursue such strategies in a way that makes sense for your business model. No doubt, today’s automation systems are complex, and they can easily become a thousand-pound monster if not implemented with a clear plan and an established set of goals in mind. As a rule of thumb, start small and make the technology work for you in an extremely controlled environment. Then, once you figure out how you can benefit from automation technology, build the system out in a way that will provide the biggest benefit for the least possible cost.

Automation has always been at the forefront of industry. And with ever-tightening margins, international competition, and a shrinking labor force, manufacturers can ill-afford to take their foot off the pedal.

Matt Migliore, Editor