Software importance increasing among plant engineers

Today's plant engineer is transcending the longstanding stereotype. The plant engineering function is no longer just nuts and bolts. Today's plant engineer is mature, educated, and tends to stay in his or her job. And the job requires an increasing amount of software.Software is a fact of life on the plant floor of today and tomorrow.

By Jack Smith, Senior Editor, Plant Engineering Magazine November 2, 2018

Today’s plant engineer is transcending the longstanding stereotype. The plant engineering function is no longer just nuts and bolts. Today’s plant engineer is mature, educated, and tends to stay in his or her job. And the job requires an increasing amount of software.

Software is a fact of life on the plant floor of today and tomorrow. The question is not whether to use software, but which software to use. And plant engineers are not only using, but also demanding efficient, affordable, and well-supported software.

What software applications do plant engineers use? What software characteristics are important to plant engineers? How do plant engineers use networks? How many plant engineers are using wireless technology?

These questions, as well as others, are addressed in an exclusive PLANT ENGINEERING survey. This article summarizes the survey results.

Software applications

PLANT ENGINEERING asked which software applications you use. The chart in Fig. 1 indicates that all respondents use project management software. A close second — 97.1% — use programmable logic controller (PLC) software. Third, 96.7% use CAD systems, while 96.6% use design, and 93.2% use automation software. Computerized maintenance management software (CMMS) users round out the top six at 92%.

Equipment selection and specification software is used by 91.7% of respondents. Next, 85.7% use energy analysis, followed by 83.9% using data acquisition (DAQ), then 80% using enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

Vibration analysis is used by 76.3% of respondents. Following closely is electronic document management at 76% and enterprise asset management (EAM) software at 75%.

Of the respondents, 73.7% use supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software. Next, 72.5% use predictive maintenance and 72% use project document management software.

There are no surprises here. The survey indicates significant software usage, as well as demand, among plant engineers. With expanding software usage on the plant floor, one inference can clearly be made: Software is becoming increasingly important to the plant engineer.

Important characteristics

PLANT ENGINEERING asked respondents to rank software characteristics in nine categories. The following list presents these categories in order of importance based on your responses. However, a word of caution is appropriate here. The last item on the list does not necessarily mean that the item is not important. Respondents ranked all categories with a certain level of importance.

Availability of technical assistance

User friendly

Upgrade compatibility

Service after the sale

Training availability

Ease of installation

Computer control compatibility


Ability to customize


Two-thirds (66.3%) of respondents use both networked and stand-alone systems, while 19% use only networked and 14.1% use only stand-alone.

Whether partially or totally networked, some type of network protocol must be used. PLANT ENGINEERING asked: “If networked, what is your primary communication protocol?” The table categorizes the responses.

The protocols in the “other” category are AS400, HP Brio, and simple TCP/IP.

From these data, it is obvious that Ethernet continues to dominate communication protocol for most respondents.

Wireless technology

Wireless technology offers plant engineers the capability to “connect” instruments to networks without expensive wiring, maintain voice communication, facilitate controls and automation, and perform certain maintenance tasks effectively and efficiently. However, only slightly less than 25% of respondents are using it (Fig. 2).

Of the 23.6% of respondents who are using wireless technology, 69.2% use it for plant communications. Nearly half use it for controls and automation. Third, 38.5% use it for maintenance (Fig. 3).

Of those responding, 5.1% use wireless technology for bar coding, 2.6% for fire panels and computer room, and 2.6% for stockroom and receiving.

The future

With only a few categories swapping positions, software characteristics plant engineers consider important follow trends from previous PLANT ENGINEERING surveys. Ethernet is still the dominant network protocol. Also, wireless technology is still slow to catch on. However, project management software has replaced CMMS as the most used application among plant engineers.

These data indicate that software is a fact of life on the plant floor. Software is important to plant engineers because it helps them do their jobs more efficiently. As software continues to evolve and plant engineers’ requirements become even more sophisticated, it will undoubtedly become more important.

Primary communication protocols

Respondents, %



4-20 mA















Engineers’ favorite software-PLANT ENGINEERING asked you what your favorite software application program is and why. There were numerous responses, some of which are listed here.

Favorite software

Cross-functional packages

Allen-Bradley RS series

AS RS Logix 500
To program Allen-Bradley SLC 500 PLCs

AS RS Logix, RS View
Ease of use

Most useful Stability of product Very powerful, good support, no bugs Works well for low price Relatively universal and friendly Use it every day for quick sketching The newer versions have made drafting more versatile as well as challenging Good tool for my needs Allows visualization of space utilization, production flow for new machinery Its an important part of our work here and its easy to use I need it on a daily basis

Ease of use

Easy to use, reliable

Cimplicity HMI
Allows great control of various machines

Performs all purchasing, inventory control, and work orders for maintenance

Datastream MP2
Excellent CMMS package All encompassing, brings much data together, good report generation

Emonitor Odyssey (Entek)
Logical, user friendly, capable

Copy and exchange files rather than create from scratch

Faser 5.0
Well written with good technical support

Ease of use

Ease of use

Mainsaver CMMS (Cayenta)
Easy for shop personnel to use

Maximo Predictive Maintenance
Helps maintenance manage the bottom line

Microsoft Office
Facilitates job performance Integrated package that allows me to do my job efficiently

Power Its what I use; it works well

Palm desktop
Daily organizer, address book

We can monitor and control our power consumption and demand

PHD design software
Makes specifying pneumatic and hydraulic components much easier

PLM (Plant Line Monitoring)
You can see the entire plant on one screen

Power Basic
Design in-house control systems

SKF Prism 4 for Windows
Ease of use and graphics

Low cost with excellent functions

Adaptable to a wide range of custom applications

Visual Basic
Ease of writing custom applications

Key software challenges

Plant Engineering magazine asked what factors you see as key challenges your company faces concerning software applications. There were numerous responses, some of which are listed here.

Compatibility among systems

Compatibility among programs and intranet applications


Upgrade compatibility


Selecting and implementing a CMMS

Advancing an application in a declining business market

Availability of capable people for implementation

Being cost competitive

Agreeing on a standard control software to implement and use

Combining parts, production, and sales databases

Communication, interfaces, and historical data management

Companies that stop supporting equipment and software after just a few years, requiring users to upgrade

Hardware and software upgrades

Customizing to meet individual needs


Finding useful applications

Getting corporate to authorize the purchase of a decent package


Going online with a work order system

Implementation of BPICS

Implementation of a new ERP system

Integrating CMMS with office systems

Integrating different software for electronic data exchange

Integrating information between different business units and providing web-based access

Integrating the new systems with the existing ones

Internet connectability and security

Knowledge management

Letting go of legacy software

Machine control integration

Networking PLCs

Better predictive maintenance

Nonsupported software

Quick sketching

Regulatory compliance with electronic audit trail

Too many standards and getting vendors to use them

Windows 2000 compatibility