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NZ gets ready for turbulent times

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THE COMBINED impact of new technology and globalisation are among a variety of issues that will buffet New Zealand’s process control industry over the next few years, and the Institute of Measurement and Control (IMC) will have its hands full helping industry weather the storm. That’s the view of the IMC’s new president, Jim Neville, a member since 1994 — and vice-president for the past seven years. Neville was elected at the IMC’s AGM in November last year and succeeds Brent Fernandez who was president from 1987 until last year.

PACE: The measurement and control industry seems to be in an unprecedented phase of change. What’s behind it? How’s it affecting local industry?

JN: These are indeed volatile times, and there are a number of inter-related issues at play. A major one is the impact of new technologies and operating philosophies on the traditional process control sector — specifically, on its personnel. We are witnessing a shrinking control industry. The exclusive use of traditional process control specialists is a fading philosophy — it’s being superceded by a ‘blending of personnel’ — people with different, multiple or generalist skills.

Consider the involvement of IT personnel in process control, for example. It’s mainly because of control systems migrating to LAN/WAN enterprise systems, as well as the growing role of the Internet and Ethernet in modern plants. Control communication systems have become more ‘open’ and less proprietary. There’s a lot of discussion and apprehension in the industry about the security and access issues, but like it or not, it’s a growing trend, and we need to adapt to it and accommodate it.

In parallel with that development is industry’s growing use of industrial electrical technicians rather than instrumentation technicians —not only in terms of fitting new equipment, but also for maintenance. In some respects, this is happening because instrumentation has become far more reliable and doesn’t require the regular maintenance it did in the past. But it’s also compounded by a shift in training and education. With universities and polytechs now offering degree courses, students are less inclined to enrol for the traditional technician courses. We find ourselves with more supervisors and less hands-on people.

A similar adjustment is occurring in the control and relief valve sector, where the maintenance of equipment is increasingly falling to personnel with broad mechanical skills rather than specialist valve expertise. And of course, in some applications, the evolution of new technologies such as on-line analysers with their self-diagnostic capabilities, has decreased — but not removed — the need for specialist staff somewhat. Maintenance and analysis of equipment is no longer as labour-intensive as it used to be.

Another trend impacting on traditional control and instrumentation staff is that of outsourcing. Modern management trends relate to reducing overheads by switching to contract staff and cutting back on permanent, in-house staff. This also allows many organisations to shift compliance issues on to the contractor.

So collectively, all of these developments are changing the nature of how the industry functions, and the IMC must adapt its role to cater for the changes. At the end of day, process control is still the most critical issue affecting the reliability of the plant and the quality and variability of the end-product. The way it is tackled may change, but it remains a vital component of the processing industry.

PACE: The last few years have been marked by a flurry of mergers and acquisitions in the process control industry on a global scale. How will these developments affect industry, as well as the local suppliers and vendors?

JN: In a number of ways. For a start, the fact that there are now only a few major measurement and control manufacturers — Invensys, Emerson, ABB , Tyco and Yokogawa , for example — means fewer choices and less competition. But you could also argue that some rationalisation is good for the industry — that there were too many different technologies fighting for the same market share.

Perhaps most significantly, however, the mergers may impact on end-users that have already invested in equipment. With their supplier absorbed into another company, they may find support for their particular installation severely curtailed. Worse, it may disappear altogether.

Of course, mergers and acquisitions also impact on the subsidiaries and representative in this country. They might suddenly find they no longer have a product — with fairly dire consequences. So it impacts on the vendor’s job security.

There’s also a flip-side to the equation. The merger syndrome is also taking place locally, which reduces the market for process control vendors. Look at the dairy industry. A few years ago there were about 15 milk products manufacturers. We now have three, and the largest represents about 98% of the market.

PACE: Environmental legislation such as the RMA already influences the process control operations of many organisations, and it’s likely the restrictions may become tighter if New Zealand adopts the Kyoto Protocol. Is there a role for the IMC as a sort of sounding board facility for industry and, perhaps more importantly, for Government?

JN: Definitely. The IMC is already involved in this way, and is a member of the National Network of Technologists operating under the auspices of IPENZ. The Network was established as an independent expert body the Government can use to test and discuss a wide range of policies.

New Zealand’s possible ‘early adoption’ of the Kyoto Protocol is, I think, one of the most disturbing issues facing industry — and the IMC needs to play a support role. All the major energy users are big process control users, and the impact of conditions under ‘Kyoto Protocol legislation’ would be severe. Particularly if we are the only country complying — any competitive edge we may have now would disappear. As an impartial body, the IMC would play an important role in verifying the accuracy of monitoring processes in terms of environmental impacts and so on.

I think we are all subjected to a lot of misinformation about the dangers of climate change, and any serious instrumentation and measurement professional should read Lomborg’s book [The Skeptical Environmentalists: Measuring The Real State Of The World by Bjorn Lomborg, Cambridge University Press, 2001] for a balanced view. It should also be compulsory reading for our Government.

PACE: Where to from here? How will the IMC address these issues?

JN: There is no simple, single strategy — it will have to be a multi-faceted approach. We will attempt to interpret and reflect on what is happening in the process control sector, so that our members are able to make informed decisions, and stay abreast with emerging trends and technologies more easily.

We will continue providing broad-based skills support, using tools such as seminars and workshops, and there appears to be a particular need in the short term to focus on safety instrumented systems. The seminars and workshops will also explore the use of diagnostic functions in control valves, instruments and variable speed drives, and there is a great need for support in the integrating of different, multiple fieldbus protocols.

To reiterate my earlier point: the way process control is implemented in the future may change – but it remains a vital component of the processing industry. It’s up to us to facilitate the changes.

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