Stuxnet and Espionage Segment on 60 Minutes

60 Minutes had a segment discussing the Stuxnet Virus and some of the espionage behind it last week. There isn’t any new information for anyone that has followed the Stuxnet story over the last 18 months or so but it’s interesting to hear from a non-technical perspective.

Contact me for ideas and considerations for protecting your industrial controls network.

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The State of Manufacturing and High-Tech Manufacturing Jobs

Do you ever get completely frustrated by the news and the pessimistic outlook on our economy – specifically the gloomy news surrounding manufacturing in the U.S.? I know I do! Mostly because business is pretty dog-gone good for us – a distributor that sells electrical products to manufacturers as well as others. So out of complete frustration from hearing bad news, I’ve collected a few links and comments expressing more optimism in the future of manufacturers and those that are employed in the manufacturing sector.

Manufacturing Expands At Fastest Pace Since June is a recent article from the Industrial Distribution website that suggests the rate of economic growth in the coming quarters might slow a bit but provides strong evidence that we’re off to a good start in 2012. This article from Textile World also shows that some of manufacturing’s hardest hit sectors of the last decade or so are holding there own and projecting modest growth into next year (Textiles 2012: The Prognosis Is Good).

One of the limiting factors in manufacturers’ ability to grow still appears to be limited access to skilled workers. My post on why there aren’t more young controls engineers touched on some reasons why there is a skilled labor shortage. The bottom line though is those that find work in high-tech manufacturing jobs can be compensated quite well. These posts and links from the US Commerce Department and MFG.com express similar ideas about the struggle to find enough workers and the opportunities for those pursuing manufacturing careers.

 MFG.comMFG.com – @MFGcom
#Manufacturers lament skilled-labor shortage: http://t.co/AFGE2BHP #manufacturing #jobs #STEM

U.S. Commerce Dept.U.S. Commerce Dept. – @CommerceGov
The State of our Union’s 21st Century Workforce – http://t.co/jd2i34s1 #STEM jobs pay more and have more projected opportunities

Ironically enough there are still numerous nay-sayers that don’t understand the role manufacturing plays. This article from the Fiscal Times, Why America Shouldn’t Focus on Manufacturing contends that there is no hope for US manufacturing and we should be focused on other avenues to prosperity(via @AJSweatt). I disagree.

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Updated Compatibility Information for Rockwell Software and Windows 7

Rockwell Software has updated tech notes regarding the compatibility of software packages with Windows 7 and the Windows XP Mode included with Windows 7. I covered some of the potential issues using XP Mode and Windows 7 with older versions of the software in this post series: Windows 7 or XP or 98 or whatever with Automation Software (part 1 of 3). Some of that information is dated based on these new tech notes.

The gist of the updates is some older versions of RSLogix programming software (5, 500, and 5000) work on Vista and Windows 7 (32 bit). Also a number of software products have been tested and are now supported in XP Mode on Windows 7.

Look for Answer ID 67020 and 341918 on the Rockwell Automation Knowledgebase for more details.

I personally still feel that VMWare is the best way to reduce your headaches in dealing with OS compatibility issues and Rockwell Software.

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Smart Grid made here in America

The United States spent over $7 billion in 2010 on Smart Grid technologies. That’s second only to China. Geoff Zeiss provides some really interesting posts on his Between the Poles blog discussing a number of energy production and usage issues including smart grid investment if you’re interested. I read a little about the topic out of curiosity, but in a recent discussion with a fellow engineer I was surprised to find that numerous parts of the technological puzzle making up the smart grid aren’t standardized yet.

I've Got the PowerThe wireless connection from electric water heaters to the meter base for instance is still being debated. I assumed that the ZigBee smart energy standard was it. However that isn’t necessarily the case. As a matter of fact there are a number of challenges in those “smart appliance to the meter” and “meters in the housing development to the community” connections that are still being discussed. ZigBee might not be the best solution or at least not the only wireless solution in the system.

Regardless of the standards and technologies, what stuck with me was how big the opportunity is for businesses to grow with the implementation of these systems. It would be a shame if this huge and growing smart grid industry was completely captured by non-US companies. These types of high-tech products are what all of us techies want and the country needs to nurture to provide good jobs in the US.

I’m happy to report that there are some US-based companies that are deeply involved in these standards discussions and technology development. One of my favorites is FreeWave Technologies. FreeWave is a Boulder, Colorado based manufacturer that designs and manufacturers all their products here in the US. If you took a peek inside the drones and other unmanned vehicles that our armed service guys utilize so effectively today, you’d see FreeWave radios. They are the kind of company that you should support if you believe in “Made in America”.

Visit the FreeWave Technologies website to see the types of products and technologies they are making. Also post your comments below or contact me to discuss your opinions on where the smart grid is going and what technologies and automation devices you think will be used in implementing it.

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Posted in Factory Automation Industry | 1 Comment

Why don’t more young engineers pursue Automation and Control Engineering careers?

Why don’t more young engineers pursue careers in Automation and Control Engineering? We could all probably make some general assumptions.

  • there is a perception that it’s dirty factory work
  • there is a perception that all of these jobs moved overseas
  • high school grads lack preparation to pursue engineering degree
  • too expensive to pursue engineering degree
  • engineers aren’t fairly compensated

There is a long discussion thread in the Automation and Control Engineering Group on LinkedIn on this very topic. This thread started three months ago and is still getting regular comments. The amount of commentary is surprising to me.

A large portion of the comments are not US-based. I don’t know if you can infer this supports a perception that manufacturing left the US. But I can certainly surmise from the comments that more young foreign engineers are outspoken and passionate about automation and controls. They see their biggest obstacle as an inability to get started in the industry and gain some experience.

I did a little research on some of the other topics to satisfy my own curiosity.

The average tuition for a US-based 4-year public university has increased pretty substantially over the past decade. The investment is still valuable if a graduate can find and retain employment.
four-year university average annual tuition trend

Electrical Engineers are compensated well. The chart below displays the average compensation for an Electrical Engineer with 10 years experience (taken from the IEEE.org site) compared to the average cost of a gallon of gas and the Consumer Price Index over the same period. I multiplied the cost of gas and CPI by 1,000 to make the graph more compact and to emphasize the trends.
Electrical Engineer Salary compared to gas and Consumer Price Index

The growth in compensation is somewhat flat over the last ten years but still quite strong compared to most fields. I couldn’t find much historical data specific to the Automation and Control field. The data I did find on the Automation.com site was similar to the average Electrical Engineer compensation.

The fact that Electrical Engineers saw a decrease in compensation growth over the last decade made me curious if that is common across multiple job types and industries. I found that most jobs are similarly flat as far as wage growth goes. There were a few exceptions though such as Chemical Engineers and Petroleum industry jobs. Two other exceptions were also quite noticeable.

U.S Senators maintained a steeper compensation growth trend than Electrical Engineers over the last decade.
Electrical Enginner salary versus US Senator

The average compensation growth for Fortune 500 CEOs also maintained an impressive trend over the last ten years.
Electrical Engineer salary comapred to CEO

So I say that tuition is an obstacle but not insurmountable and compensation should be viewed as a reason for becoming an engineer. Engineers in the Automation and Controls field are quite handsomely compensated. If you have an opportunity to be a Fortune 500 CEO though, do it instead because you can write yourself an obscene check. While Senators make more than us, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to follow that path because they get less work done than Dilbert’s partner Wally. Most of the people I know with an engineering mindset also like to get things done.

Dilbert.com

I don’t know the solution to increasing the number of engineers that specialize in the automation and control fields but I’m open to your thoughts.

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Posted in Factory Automation Industry | 66 Comments

Minimize Noise in Control Panels with Panduit’s Shielded Wire Duct

One of the most common control panel problems is noise. Electrical noise problems in enclosures and control systems are typically intermittent and difficult to troubleshoot. Customers frequently ask questions about how best to minimize the electrical noise in their control panels. So I get excited about easy to use solutions to control panel noise problems.

Panduit offers shielded duct products that provide the noise reduction equivalent of a 6″ air space in the cabinet. Use the shielded duct to separate noisy wiring such as drive cables from communication or signal cabling. Use of the shielded duct products from Panduit also allow a reduction in cabinet size by reducing the amount of air space that is needed.
Panduit Shielded Wire Duct
The products are available as Shielded Wire Duct or as an EMI Noise Shield.
Panduit EMI Noise Shield
Look through the Minimizing Electrical Noise in Control Panels Presentation for more specific details and recommendations from Rockwell Automation on designing your control panel.

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Robots and Programmable Controllers are Coming to Eat Your Brains

robot army We all know that the robots are eventually going to rise up and kill us all. We are getting closer each day to Skynet becoming self-aware and impending doom. If this image doesn’t convince you then watch the Hummingbird Spybot video:

Or the Creepy, Crawly, BugBot video:

And you will be convinced that the end is near.

Thankfully, controls engineers have retained some control and robots go about doing all of the stuff that humans just aren’t that good at or that we just shouldn’t or can’t do.

For instance the iRobots that are currently exploring the damage of the Fukushima reactors are serving a useful purpose. Also one of Chattanooga’s well-known companies Tennessee Rand uses robots as well as programmable controllers and other factory automation devices to perfectly weld parts together for our cars, motorcycles, and other products.

What interesting industrial applications are you seeing robots used in?

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Posted in Factory Automation Industry | 1 Comment

The Most Interesting Engineer in the World

To end the week and tax day on a positive note:
The Most Interesting Engineer in the World

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Posted in Factory Automation Industry | 4 Comments

The Micro 800 is Coming (Late April or May)

The new Micro 800 PLC from Rockwell Automation won’t be for everybody. But it has a lot of power for small stand alone systems where one of the more powerful Rockwell Automation controllers is overkill. The Micro 810 and the 830 will be available in the initial launch in the next month or so.

Watch this video from Automation Fair for an introduction to these PLCs.

Here are just a few of the features available in the Micro 810 model:

  • 4 ea high current (8amp) relay outputs
  • 8 ea DC inputs 4 of which can be configured as 10-bit analog inputs
  • Plug-In analog and serial I/O modules
  • Optional LCD and USB adapter
  • Configurable with standard timer function blocks from LCD
  • Less than $100 list price
  • USB 2.0 port for programming
  • Free downloadable software
  • IEC 61131-3 editors (ladder, Function Block, and Structured Text)
  • User-defined function block
  • Run-time editing

Contact your account rep or ask one of Kendall’s inside sales people for more information.

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Posted in Controllers and Accessories | 2 Comments

Using VMWare and Automation Software (part 3 of 3)

Post number three of three in a series dealing with Windows operating system compatibility with Rockwell Software products and factory automation software in general. I will post a follow up with links to demos of some of the solutions and a SlideShare overview of the entire discussion.

In the first post of this series, Windows 7 or XP or 98 or whatever with Automation Software we explored what options you have for maintaining automation software that is not tested and supported on the Windows 7 operating system. In the second post we discussed the VirtualBox virtualization software package. In this post we discuss VMWare and automation software.

Summing up what your options are and what the best solution is:

  • Option #1 Maintaining old hardware – Risky and in some cases impossible because replacement parts are unavailable
  • Option #2 Windows 7 and XP Mode – Hit or miss solution that may or may not work
  • Option #3 Virtualization Software – Your best option
  • Option #4 Upgrade systems to the latest version – Cost prohibitive and not practical to upgrade working systems

Best solution – Virtualization Software

Based on discussions with a lot of customers and software product managers, virtualization software is really the only good option for dealing with mismatches between your automation software and Windows Operating Systems. Visit the Virtualization for Manufacturing Industries slides presentation from Automation Fair 2010 for a thorough explanation of all of the benefits in using a virtualized environment. I can sum it by saying, I don’t know how you can use a single computer and a single hard drive without using either VirtualBox or VMWare. If you know of a better way please comment below so we all can learn.

VMWare Workstation

The virtualization software allows you to create a virtual machine for each operating system that you need to support your automation systems. The VirtualBox download is free. VMWare has a few components. Some are free and some aren’t. The VMWare Player is the free package that will allow you to run a virtual machine after it is created. VMWare Workstation is the package you need to create and optimize the virtual machines. You have to buy Workstation (<$200). I gave an example in the previous post about an integrator that uses VirtualBox. RMJ Consulting is an integrator based in Chattanooga that elected to use VMWare in a similar way. RMJ uses the VMWare Workstation package to create virtual machines (images) for each vendor they use Rockwell, Siemens, GE, etc… They also create images for customer installations as needed to support and maintain systems. Ron Hinkle, President of RMJ Consulting said he uses the Windows 7 XP mode in circumstances where it meets his needs but considers the VMWare solution the best way for them to deal with automation software that won’t run reliably on Windows 7 and for older control system software.

Rockwell Automation links and tech notes on Virtualization software

As stated in the previous post, Rockwell Automation does not support VirtualBox installations only VMWare. So if you contact Rockwell for technical assistance on a virtualized machine you have to be using VMWare to get help.

Below are links to tech notes related to VMWare on the Rockwell Automation Knowledgebase. You will have to login to access the answers. If the link doesn’t take you directly to the answer, just search by the answer ID.

Summary

In the last three posts we’ve looked at the easiest way to deal with automation software that may not be supported on the most current Windows operating system. We determined that of the solutions that are available the only good long-term solution is to familiarize ourselves as controls engineers with virtualization software. This will allow us to keep our computers working optimally by running the latest or most robust Windows (or even Linux) O.S. while using virtualized machines for running automation software that is not always compatible with the latest or most robust Windows O.S.

Please let me know what you think about using virtualization software or share your experiences with the rest of the readers.

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