One of the byproducts of Moore’s Law is the ever increasing capability and declining cost of digital electronics. The semiconductor world is a scary place where chips are created with features smaller than the the wavelength of ultraviolet light. We used to refer to things that are complex as “rocket science”. Packing more feature on small slices of silicon and making them into processors able to execute complex code is probably every bit as challenging as “rocket science”, maybe more so.
Computers, cellphones, televisions and the semiconductors that are needed for them have grown into the largest industry in all of human civilization. If not for how quickly the prices keep falling, it would dwarf the car industry by many times. Because of the massive size of the industry, there are legions of highly trained people designing and building the next breakthrough product.
So what’s the problem? That’s progress, isn’t it?
Yes, of course, but. There’s always a “but”. With the resources that the semiconductor industry commands, the speed at which the technology has been changing is itself creating a challenge for industrial controls manufacturers and users. In the manufacturing world production machinery is dedicated hardware with high capital cost and long life expectancy. Heavy duty CNC machines are expected to operate for decades. Conveying and material handling systems are much the same way.
Semiconductor manufacturers themselves are sometimes subject to the same problems. While there is always an effort to push the boundary of the technology, the capital equipment required has to produce product for years in order to return on the cost of the equipment. The production of 6″ silicon wafer for the solar industry has gone through some issues in maintaining equipment due to the number of components that are no longer available.
Just as it is difficult to justify tearing out all the capital equipment in a factory, doing a control system upgrade is equally unlikely. Part of the reason that manufacturing plants don’t do major control system changes is the amount of time production will be off line. Control system upgrades also expose the plant to risk of an unanticipated hardware or software failure during commissioning. Of course, a lot of the risk can be mitigated by careful planning, but sometimes the perception of risk is sufficient to keep plans on hold.
More on this next week.