Thinking back to my childhood, I find it odd why I remember some memories so vividly while most are lost to time. I have this one absolutely clear memory. I was walking home with my mother (most likely carrying a rented copy of Star Wars or Empire Strikes Back from the local video store, which was a novelty at the time). I must have been going on about something I read about robots… I think I got a book about robots around that age and I saw pictures of some of the first industrial robots of the time. Anyway, I can clearly remember my mother telling me that she was afraid everyone was going to lose their job to a robot soon.
I think the reason this memory stuck with me was how contrary it was to the culture of kids at the time. We idolized robots. The coolest things in our lives were droids, AT-ATs and Transformers (my, how things have changed, eh?). But this wasn’t over-the-top paranoia, it was the generally accepted truth at that time. For the most part, those anxieties have vanished along with fears of nuclear war, only to be replaced by new anxieties of terrorism.
The truth is that we’ve been replacing people with robots for the last quarter of a century, and the unemployment rate peaked in the early 80’s and has been going down, not up! How is it possible that unemployment has fallen while automation is rising?
A History Lesson
In 1865, William Stanley Jevons published a book called The Coal Question. “In it, Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design … Jevons argued that any further increases in efficiency in the use of coal would tend to increase the use of coal. Hence, it would tend to increase, rather than reduce, the rate at which England’s deposits of coal were being depleted.”
This effect became known as the Jevons Paradox:
In economics, the Jevons paradox … is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. It is historically called the Jevons Paradox as it ran counter to popular intuition. However, the situation is well understood in modern economics. In addition to reducing the amount needed for a given use, improved efficiency lowers the relative cost of using a resource â€“ which increases demand and speeds economic growth, further increasing demand.
Automation Increases the Efficiency of Human Resources
Workers are a resource too. Automation is just a technological means to improve the efficiency of people, allowing one person to do the work of many. Since there is no cap on the demand for work, automation increases the demand for workers, since each worker becomes more valuable. Hence, unemployment goes down and wages go up.
ControlsOverload Improves Your Efficiency
When I first got into controls, you learned everything by reading a paper manual (if you could find one) or by trial and error, or if you were lucky, from someone else in your company who had used this technology before. We wasted hours trying to figure stuff out, but we accepted this because it was normal. But it also made us inefficient.
Google came along but largely passed us by. Vendors keep their knowledge bases behind locked doors on the internet, and when working on the plant floor, we rarely had internet access anyway, but that’s changing. Many of us now have smartphones so we can access the internet from anywhere. Sometimes we even have WiFi.
Enter ControlsOverload, Web 2.0 meets Controls Engineering. You don’t need to pay anyone to join. You don’t even need to register to ask or answer a question. It asks that you leave your name, email address, and website, but you can make these up if you want to remain anonymous.
When you start typing your question into ControlsOverload, it automatically searches the existing questions to see if it’s already been asked. As the amount of content on the site grows, the chance that you’ll get your answer immediately grows as well. If the question hasn’t been asked before, posting your question is a single click away. When you get answers, registered users can vote them up or down. The best answers rise to the top, so you don’t have to search through 7 pages of forum posts to find the most relevant or correct answer.
Questions are also “tagged” by technology. Perhaps you’re a vendor and you want to see all the questions related to your products. Here’s the page for all Allen-Bradley technologies for instance. If you want, you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the same page.
Will it work? The technology is already a huge success story for traditional PC programming, along with other topics like parenting and personal finance. It works. People participate because it’s really useful.
The point of ControlsOverload is to make us more efficient, as an industry. We waste less time figuring out how to do the simple stuff, like how to copy symbols out of a PLC into Excel and vice-versa.
Doesn’t this mean we’re giving away our valuable knowledge for free? Are we essentially automating ourselves out of a job?
There’s no doubt our jobs will change. We will spend less time doing trial and error and more time solving customers’ problems. The customer doesn’t care about editing PLC programs; they care about making their facility more efficient. If we can solve that problem faster and easier, then we’re more efficient. If we’re more efficient, the demand for our services goes up.
Whether you participate or not, ControlsOverload is going to increase the demand for controls engineers, and that’s going to increase the wages of controls engineers. ControlsOverload will make you more money.
On the other hand, if your business strategy is to be the only one on the block who remembers the arcane technical details of a Fanuc RJ3iB controller, I’m sorry to tell you that the viability of that business model is quickly being exhausted.
Join us on ControlsOverload:
- Pool your knowledge.
- Make connections.
- Be more productive.