Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Features Distorted Realities Opinion
Dreaming of electric sheep: Harness the power of professionals to get the job done


I had a dream, probably inspired by the medications required for replacing my fourth knee, and it was all about dimensions. This dream opened with an abstract vision of a single cell, similar to a red blood cell. The narrator (yes, some of my dreams have a narrator) suggests these cells are dimensionless. A worm was a single scalar number. Next, a dog was shown; it was an example of the three dimensions. The number five (representing the dimensions x, y, z, time and gravity) was shown the dog catching a Frisbee. What next? I wondered.

The dream ended with an overload of images, which represented a series of dimensions: it showed a field, the owner of the Frisbee and the dog, and the actions of all. Like the dog dreaming of chasing a rabbit, I was chasing dimensionality. At this point, I exited stage (brain?) left.

This experience reminded me of the science fiction novel penned by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel was later made into a movie: 1982’s Blade Runner. The question, "What is human?" is examined by the author. In the novel, androids are perfect but possess no emphatic sense. My dream suggests that for that left-brain moment during sleep, I was an android anything beyond physics.

The next night, I went to a buffet sponsored by the MIT Club of New Hampshire – my first outing after knee surgery. It was held in a private home with no clutter. I commented on its no-clutter appearance, and it turns out the host is a bachelor. In comparison, my barn, a male bastion, has a decade of clutter. We had a wonderful geek-fest. Lots of talk about Northern lights stimulated by the Sun and the stars. We refused to talk politics. A "non geek" wandered by as I and another physicist were talking science and asked us about global warming. We smiled, and arrogantly commented on humans causing ice age and short-term warming was – at best – not supported by most of the buffet’s attendees. "Don’t you believe in global warming?" our visitor asked. Chuck, the other party to our conversation, said, "Physicists are taught to believe in nothing." The guest blinked and stomped off. Chuck and I agreed that we don’t speak up as we should. Because of this, decisions about atomic energy, Y2K, vaccinations, education, fusion power, lotteries, economics, the stock market, global warming, ABS, automatic transmissions and women’s skirts are decided by our society’s left-brain emotions. The technology and science become irrelevant. I am not suggesting that analysis is king, merely that the whole brain should be involved in decisions. Emotions and logic are partners in our species’ lives.

Advertisment

What does this have to do with engineering? Are we androids?

The point is that we don’t speak up about issues and professionalism.

Shirley, my bride of 50 years, used a quilting analogy. The user and buyer of a handmade quilt specify size, colour and several other dimensions. But the choice of needle, thread, pattern and scissors are the choice of the professional seamstress. A professional connects to the problem, not the logic of implementation. We are not smart because we know what SCADA and Java are. It’s like the surgeon who thinks his medical skills have value in the stock market. Novelist Robert B. Parker penned a story about a small-town police chief in one of his Jesse Stone novels. The town management felt the chief was not doing his job along the selectman’s thinking. The chief replied, "You can fire me, but you can’t tell me how to do my job." He works the town problems within budgetary and staffing requirements, but he is the consummate implementation professional.

Lawyers, doctors, expert witnesses, chefs, firemen, CPAs, teachers, plumbers and electricians are all professionals. Are we? Do the MBAs and management dictate the tactical implementation as well as frame the problem? No. Professionalism requires a good attitude, training and understanding of technical and needs issues, and quality of performance. Many of us resort to following rules, not solving the problems.

So what training do we need? Some studies indicate the retread age for engineers is under 40. Most institutions offer technical updates and its costs are usually shared by the company. Expansion of communication and marketing skills is also important. Marketing should share half of your upgrade courses. Getting out of the box does not mean walking to the next cubical; my dream certainly took me out of my box. Once a year, take three-plus days to attend a seminar in another province or state in a subject strange to you. I recommend the MIT Emerging Technology conference, COFES (the future of software) and the ISA marketing and sales conference. Plenty more are offered by technical societies and non-local universities.

Don’t work on your faults; improve your strong skills. We are the servants of innovation. Predicting the future is easy. After all, you make it.
 
Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at morley@barn.org.