Shopped for a Father’s Day card lately? You’ll see plenty of golfing, fishing, and barbecuing themes. While my father enjoys many of those hobbies, that’s not what stands out most to me about him. What stands out to me are two things:

1. As an electrical engineer, he could fix any appliance in the house, from the TV to the oven to the sewing machine. (The ice maker was his nemesis for a while, but eventually my dad even fixed that.)

Dad-RetirementSurprise-small(1)2. Growing up, my friends never really understood what he did for a living. When asked, I’d mumble “Something about automation and controls.” Even if I had explained it better, I realize now it would have been tough for people to understand because industrial automation was new. My dad was a bit of a pioneer.

Recently, my father retired after an intense 30+ year career planning, advising, and training engineers in automation systems. For more than 20 of those years, he and a partner helmed Commonwealth Controls Corporation, which Graybar acquired. (Here he is in awe of his retirement surprise party.)

With Father’s Day around the corner and content engineering rich with possibilities for content automation, I’m delighted to share this brief interview with my dad, Leonard “Pete” Pettit.

How did you become interested in industrial automation and controls?

A senior engineer offered me a position on his staff based on an electrical design that I created at his former industrial plant. I found it interesting, especially because of its potential to improve efficiency.

Industrial automation is essentially using machines, control systems, and information technology to monitor and control the delivery of products or services. It puts the burden of repetitive or mundane tasks on machines instead of humans and often saves steps in a process.

When I started out, industrial automation was really needed in manufacturing plants. But, now, the applications are wider.

That sounds like something anyone trying to make delivering content more efficient would need. What was especially beneficial or innovative about automation when you became involved?

When you improve instrumentation (the instruments you use to measure or monitor a process) and digital communication with automation, you can get all kinds of benefits. The biggest benefits are enhanced product or service quality and better production thruput (the amount of material, substances, or products coming through the process). On top of that, automation usually improves safety for the plant and the people working in it.

Content hasn’t killed anyone yet (at least not directly), but the benefits of quality and efficient production certainly ring true. What are some key principles or best practices in planning automation?

First, establish a clear goal. You need a good definition of what the automation project will accomplish. When industrial vision systems became popular, many projects that tried to implement them were unsuccessful for everyone involved because the goal was ill-defined or altogether absent.

Ah, there are plenty of distractions for us in the digital space, as well. It can be a challenge to define and stick with a clear goal, especially when new features or technologies seem cool. What are some other key principles or best practices?

Cost / Return on Investment
To be effective, the overall automation system cost must be competitive: Hardware / technology, design / planning, and installation.

A key factor in assessing whether the system will be cost effective is support. For example, is this equipment proven? Does the design firm have a good track record? The last thing you want is to automate a process and then have the system go down.

Implementation Training
Local training for maintenance and operation staff is key. You have to be able to keep the automation system running smoothly because now downtime is much more costly than it was before automation.

What’s one of your favorite examples of engineering automation?

It’s hard to pick, but one stands out to me because of its dramatic results. We worked with a plant to make the process of loading tractor trailers with processed cement more efficient. When we started, loading the trucks took an average of 30-40 minutes. That’s a bottleneck.

We engineered a system that involved several different technologies–graphical operator displays and digital control of air-conveyed cement. After fully implementing the system, average load time dropped from 30-40 minutes to  8-10 minutes. The bottleneck was gone. That efficiency boosted the cement thruput by 66%.

That’s dramatic, indeed. And it sounds like each project or engagement could require a different combination of hardware / technology. There isn’t one automation system that fits all.

Yes. The applications for automation are so wide that planning automation involves engineering appropriate combinations of hardware / technology into a system that works for the specific manufacturing plant or situation.

Interesting. Today, the possible applications for content automation are very wide, but we often have a mindset that one content management system can handle it. An engineering approach makes a lot of sense.

Glad my retired self could be useful. Now, it’s time for me to golf, fish, and barbecue.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in June 2013.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a content intelligence and strategy firm that has advised or trained hundreds of the world’s leading organizations since 2010. She also is the former head of content at MailChimp, the marketing platform recognized by Inc. as 2017 Company of the Year. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science to develop the  content intelligence software ContentWRX, publish the online magazine Content Science Review, and offer online certifications through Content Science Academy.

Colleen has earned recognition as an instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing by a TopRank study, a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine, and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists by multiple organizations.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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