Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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The software side of things: A review of ISA Automation Week


November 12, 2010
By Jeremy Pollard


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The Instrument Society of America (ISA) has changed its name a few times in the last 10 years. It is now called the International Society of Automation. Like its name, the association’s marquee trade show and technical conference has also gone through some changes — most recently changing its format to more of a technical conference rather than an exhibition.

The ISA shows of the past had more than 25,000 attendees, with huge Hollywood-type booths and hospitality events that would make your head spin. They also included tons of software companies showcasing their products. This year, something changed. The “big boys” left; Rockwell, Emerson, Siemens, et al, went their separate ways. User group meetings sprung up, and the industry lost a large part of the pull to larger trade shows and conferences.

Enter ISA Automation Week 2010, held at the Westin Galleria in Houston, Texas. It was not held in an exhibit hall, but a hotel, albeit a big one. By all indications, the show was a success. It was sponsored by four major players, two of which are strictly software companies — OSISoft and Wind River. OSIsoft fosters a product called PI Systems — a process database that allows process companies to have historical data to mine. Wind River is an embedded operating systems company whose products and technology are present in many smart devices.

The conference attracted more than 1,500 people. Many paid about $800 to attend the 2.5-day event. That price included lunches, coffee break refreshments, and a “Morley Unplugged” dinner of yummy BBQ (a Texas treat), accompanied by ISA’s own Carol “Cow Tip” Schafer and her guitar, with some original automation music tunes. Dick held court and tantalized the audience with stories based on words the audience gave out. I gave a talk in the Human Asset Management track called “The Grey Hair Lament — Don’t let the sun go down on me.” The discussion focused on the fact that, if we are not careful, we (the grey hairs) will not be able to retire. We know too much. We try to teach and pay forward the experiences we have had, but there is no one to tell it to. This is a common problem, I think, since this track was one of the highest attended tracks at the show.

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There was an exhibit hall, which had in excess of 100 exhibitors of varying disciplines. The show floor was only open during breaks, lunch and the networking evenings. In my eyes, there was a major presence missing on the show floor — software vendors. There were just five software-only companies exhibiting. Even the technical sessions dealt more with the application of process rather than the application of software. I talked to some vendors on the show floor who said they were bored due to the lack of activity, while others liked it because they could conduct business. But a common problem that I saw on the floor was the lack of general enthusiasm. 

I will say, though, that I was very impressed with the way that ISA treated the attendees and the speakers. Each paying attendee got a USB stick with all of the presentations on it. Next year’s conference is in Alabama. The level of success of Houston will be determined by Alabama. I hope to see you there.

Jeremy Pollard has been in the industrial automation industry for more than 25 years. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator. You can reach him at jpollard@tsuonline.com.