10 Trends that will change your job

While the basic definition of the plant engineering function has changed little over the past 50 years, the technologies, methods, and knowledge for accomplishing that function have changed

By Richard L. Dunn, Editor, Plant Engineering January 10, 2004

Sections: Functional integration Data integration Smart equipment, smart plants Wireless technology Emphasis on assets Outsourcing Reliance on technical support services Predictive maintenance and reliability Skilled worker shortage Half-life of technical knowledge

Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that. — Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

While the basic definition of the plant engineering function has changed little over the past 50 years, the technologies, methods, and knowledge for accomplishing that function have changed markedly. Indications are that the changes will continue — and at a faster pace than ever.

Here are 10 trends, some firmly established, others not, that will push changes to your job in the months and years to come — and keep you running twice as fast, to get ahead.

Functional integration

A number of managerial initiatives have been at work for many years to promote the integration of various functions in manufacturing. Among them are total productive maintenance, lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, kaizen, total quality management, supply chain management, cross-functional and self-managing team building, and others. A common trait of all of these initiatives is the breaking down of departmental silos and the promotion of cooperation among various functions.

In addition we are seeing the lines blurred as to who is responsible for what. Use of computer technology, for example, is no longer the absolute purview of the centralized information technology (IT) group. Many tasks that were once handed to IT are now do-it-yourself.

Production, maintenance, and other functions have their own, dedicated needs for IT and may have their own IT professionals. Maintenance and production schedules are increasingly coordinated, and it is sometimes difficult to define who controls which. Everyone in the plant has product quality responsibilities. And the lines of demarcation among plant engineering, finance, and purchasing are disappearing.

These factors and technology are combining to promote more functional integration at the craft level, also. Among the more recognizable areas of integration are maintenance/operations, and mechanical/electrical.

This activity will continue, and you will likely find that “it’s not my job” is a phrase heard less and less.

Data integration

Data integration goes hand in hand with functional integration. But more specifically, we’re seeing more capabilities in the relationships among data from various sources. Computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) are being expanded into enterprise asset management (EAM) systems. Purchasing and materials management functions in CMMS are being integrated with other corporate purchasing and inventory systems. Production and maintenance schedules are being coordinated. Operational data from the shop floor helps maintenance efforts and feeds into other enterprise systems.

Another area of data integration that will grow is the provision of data by original equipment manufacturers that can be fed into plant maintenance computers. OEMs will provide original vibration and noise signatures, for example. Lubrication and preventive maintenance schedules may be downloaded in the CMMS. Instruction manuals and drawings are increasingly provided in electronic formats than can be used in maintenance documentation.

Smart equipment, smart plants

The idea of the “dark plant” — the plant so fully automated that it doesn’t need people to run it and, therefore, doesn’t need lighting — has pretty much disappeared. But we are well on the way to machines and equipment that monitor themselves and tell us how they’re doing.

A good example of the direction things are headed is today’s automobiles. They are filled with all kinds of smart sensors and other gadgets that monitor the car’s operation and identify problems or potential problems. Take your car to a shop, and the first thing the mechanic does is plug it into a computer for an analysis. This is the direction in which industrial equipment, systems, and entire plants are headed.

Machinery will become increasing self-analyzing, self-adjusting, and self-correcting. Human intervention will still be necessary, of course. A pump will never replace its own impeller. But the nature of maintenance will change as we must deal increasingly with electronic components and systems.

Wireless technology

Use of wireless communications in industrial plants is growing rapidly and will continue to grow. Data, text, and graphics can be available to anyone with the proper devices, anywhere in the plant. Likewise, machinery and systems can communicate with each other without the expense of wiring. The potential for savings in hard wiring as well as the flexibility of wireless are strong incentives.

As these technologies are developed to handle interference and security issues, they will find uses not yet thought of. And plant engineers will become deeply involved in these technology applications.

Emphasis on assets

Industrial managers are beginning to view their physical assets in a new light, realizing their importance to productivity and profitability. Plant engineers, in turn, are being asked to sharpen their business/financial skills to better communicate with these managers. In the years ahead, you can expect more involvement in business reporting and planning as management applies additional pressure to maximize its return on assets.


Now accepted as a routine strategy in industry, outsourcing will likely continue to expand, although at a reduced rate. There are also spotty reports of previously outsourced services being brought back inplant. Whatever the case, whether to outsource will be a part of an increasing number of business decisions. Like many other managers, plant engineers will need to justify their decisions based on good business analyses, regardless of past practices.

When outsourcing is appropriate, plant engineers will have to be ready as able contract administrators. Outsourcing seldom means an abdication of responsibility, and plant engineers will need to ensure that contractors perform as expected.

Reliance on technical support services

The combination of a number of factors necessitates an increasing reliance on outside technical support services. Among these factors are the increasing complexity of equipment and systems, the need for more specialized knowledge, the shortage of qualified personnel, and the expense of retaining highly skilled and specialist personnel on staff.

In response to these conditions, original equipment manufacturers and others are building their capabilities for providing technical services, in every area from traditional technical support to complete monitoring and maintenance programs.

This trend will continue. And it will influence supplier relations as well as inplant staffing.

Predictive maintenance and reliability

One of the keys to maximizing assets is to ensure that they are available to fulfill their intended purposes as near to 100% of their required time as possible. The concept is simple; accomplishing it is not. But pursuit of the goal through such methods as predictive maintenance (PdM) and reliability-centered maintenance (RCM) is a well-established trend.

Effective employment of PdM methods and technologies will be the goal for many years to come. Maintenance operations not already moving in this direction must begin to do so. Those with established programs will need to support continuous improvement efforts. In any case, it may prove difficult to gain the continuing management support so necessary to the success of these kinds of programs.

Skilled worker shortage

The current shortage of skilled maintenance workers will become worse before it gets better. Schools are generally not providing the right education for such work, nor are they encouraging young people to consider industrial careers. Even during the past few years of mounting layoffs, plants found it difficult to hire and retain people with the skills they need. In the years ahead, it is clear that the loss of skilled workers through retirement will exceed the availability of replacements.

To counter this shortage, plant engineers will need to become more involved with worker training programs — both internally and externally. Internally, training time, courses, resources, and facilities will need to be provided. Externally, plants will need to work increasingly with educational institutions to provide the kinds of courses that will help the employability of the students.

Many plants are already doing these kinds of things, but the efforts must be continued and expanded. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council (MSSC), and others are leading efforts to meet these challenges.

Training is and will continue to be a primary responsibility of plant engineering and maintenance managers and supervisors.

Half-life of technical knowledge

Technology is expanding and changing so quickly that we must continually expand our knowledge and reeducate ourselves.

One way to look at this problem is to consider the “half-life” of knowledge; that is, the time it takes for half of our knowledge to become outdated. Joe Greil, director, facilities services, United Technologies Corp., for example, believes that the half-life of an engineer’s technical knowledge has been reduced from years to months.

According to Herbert & Norma Steinbacher ( TPM for America , Productivity Press, 1993), “Eighty percent of the skills of those now working in technical areas will be obsolete in three to five years.”

Yes, as the Queen told Alice, it does seem like you have to run twice as fast, if you want to make any progress. And that may be the biggest trend of all.