A status report

Back in January of 1990, we had the audacity to declare the 90s as "the decade of plant engineering." Were we right? Well, yes and no. Much of what we predicted has come to pass — or at least we've made progress in those directions. Back then, we said that plant engineering is key to better quality, higher productivity, increased profits, a cleaner environment, a safer workplace, and more...
By Richard L. Dunn, Chief Editor November 10, 2004

Back in January of 1990, we had the audacity to declare the 90s as “the decade of plant engineering.” Were we right? Well, yes and no. Much of what we predicted has come to pass — or at least we’ve made progress in those directions.

Back then, we said that plant engineering is key to better quality, higher productivity, increased profits, a cleaner environment, a safer workplace, and more modern plants. That assertion was true then, and still is. We talked about the increasingly important role of maintenance in providing capacity assurance, and, in my opinion, we were correct. We talked about the invasion of electronics into the tools and processes of plant engineering and maintenance, and that trend is continuing at an accelerating pace. (For evidence, just take a look at this year’s PLANT ENGINEERING Product of the Year entries.)

Back in 1990, we estimated total plant engineering and maintenance expenditures for U.S. industrial plants with more than 100 employees (our audience) at about $304 billion, or 1.3% of U.S. industrial output for that year. Now, our rough estimates of plant engineering expenditures run to around $370 billion, which is about 1% of U.S. industrial output for 2003. Clearly, plant engineers are keeping costs under control. Now that business confidence is returning, perhaps we’ll see an uptick in capital investments and maintenance with a resulting return to higher levels for plant engineering budgets.

Perhaps the most interesting factor here is that expenses for fuels and energy have dropped from about 41% of the plant engineering budget in 1990 to about 28% for the past several years. Clearly, plant engineers have done their job in bringing energy costs under tighter control.

Plant engineers who have been around for awhile can certainly point to a lot of progress, but there are some areas that need renewed attention. First on my list is that you, the plant engineer, still do not receive the recognition and respect you are due.

On the plus side are the various credential programs that have developed and grown. Among them: Certified Plant Engineer, Certified Plant Maintenance Manager, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, Certified Reliability Engineer, and others.

Not so positive is the fact that salary increases have only kept pace with other engineering occupations. We have not seen an increase in the presence of plant engineers in upper management. Memberships in the organizations representing our occupation have stopped growing at best and dwindled at worst. The U.S. Census Bureau still fails to recognize what we do as a defined engineering profession.

Educationally, there has been no progress. There is still no B.S. degree in plant engineering to my knowledge — nor even a plant engineering major within the other engineering disciplines. Relatively few people are even aware of what a plant engineer is.

In the decade and more since 1990, plant engineers have successfully met the technical challenges. Our plants are more productive and efficient than ever, thanks in large part to you. But professionally, there is still a need to form a community that will champion the plant engineering function and bring it to a higher level of awareness and respect.