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What lies ahead? Techs check the crystal ball

March 2012

Chuck Newcomb, Mr. Science

Ask 75 technicians what’s ahead in 2012, and you’ll get 75 different answers - and some significant points of agreement (as well as disagreement) about the trends to watch for tomorrow.

That’s what Fluke News Plus heard in our recent reader survey. Techs from the US, Canada, and Asia weighed in as to how much change they expect on the job this year, and what trends they anticipate. Some 17 percent - nearly one in five - expect to see extensive changes. But more than half (57 percent) anticipate only moderate change, while one in four predicts little change.

What changes ARE techs expecting? They fall into four major categories: changes in the economy; changing safety rules and procedures; more electronics and wireless in the workplace; and new on-the-job work practices.

A changing economy

Is the economic glass half full, or half empty? Just like politicians, survey respondents evaluated the economic outlook based on their own viewpoint.

“Hopefully, production will increase,” said Wain, a US manufacturing technician. “Hopefully, a significant increase in business,” echoed Robert, president of a Canadian firm. “We see an increase in the data part of our business.”

“I don’t think I will see a significant change,” said Stuart, a Canadian generator and industrial engine mechanic. “My customers seem to want to hang on to their money a little bit longer.”

Ben, a facility coordinator in biotech, was more confident. “I see our industry and our specific company picking up the pace from previous years,” he said, “meaning will all be extremely busy.”

A nuclear electrician in the US, Jimmy was also bullish. “The economy seems primed for lots of industrial and commercial construction,” he said. And Joseph, a mechanical engineer involved in manufacturing industrial machinery, simply predicted “increased business.”

Safety rules and procedures

“We’ll see more attention to arc flash protection and awareness, said Albert, an American electrician and electrical instructor in mining. “We will focus on how we troubleshoot, whether de-energized or energized. What additional arc flash PPE we are required to wear when troubleshooting live circuits as well as energizing particular circuits.”

Robert, a US contractor and electrician, predicted an “increase in actually following the safety rules of NFPA 70E.” In Canada, Ian, an apprentice electrician, agreed. He expects to see “continuing industry focus on worker safety - better tools, equipment, and processes.”

NFPA rules will be the area of greatest change, according to Jim, a US maintenance supervisor in the storage and distribution industry. “Electrical troubleshooting / testing techniques will be more regulated.”

“More PPE (personal protective equipment),” was all that Michael, a journeyman electrician in the US smeltering business, had to say. Dustin, a union commercial/industrial electrician, wrapped up. “Safety is always changing,” he said.

More electronics and wireless

Several technicians pointed to the growing need to deal with smart technology and wireless communications in the systems they care for.

Gregory, a low-voltage technician for a US hotel and casino, anticipated extensive changes. “Slot machines converting into computers, more wireless applications, voice over IP phones, CCTV transferring to IP, HTDV in all hotel suites, and 10 gig fiber - all of the above will require stricter standards,” he said.

“Maintenance technicians will require advanced training in troubleshooting and repairing sophisticated electronic control systems,” predicted David, maintenance manager at a corrugated packaging plant. Jim, a US field service technician who deals with forklifts and industrial equipment, said the picture is changing in his world, too, with the arrival of “more technical-intense equipment with electrical systems on forklifts.” He added that “troubleshooting and electrical test will be more critical with systems going to ac drive motors and controllers.” Ronnie, a lift truck technician in the food industry, saw the same trend to “more computerization of controls on electric motive powered equipment.”

“More of what we will be working on will be wireless,” said Tony, a telecommunications engineer in Canada. “This will require re-training, new equipment, and new ways to diagnosing systems.” And that trend, he added, will put the focus on diagnostic procedures, tools, and training.

New work practices

Others said their workplace ways are changing as they find better ways to get the job done…or grapple with cramming more production into each hour.

“Our plant is growing and we’re adding new technologies and processes,” said Bruce, maintenance supervisor in a US manufacturing plant. “We will be implementing a proactive approach to machine maintenance. We will also look for ways to streamline and improve vendor support.”

“We are going from preventive maintenance (time based) to predictive maintenance (monitoring based),” said Sean, a continuous-based monitoring technician for a major US food producer. “We’re just one of many companies changing the way we think and act with new and upcoming technology and techniques. Some of these new technologies, like ultrasound, thermography, and vibration test, are just incredible in the downtime that is reduced. Which is huge in the plant’s profits.”

Rajan, senior electrical technician at a nuclear plant in India, anticipated extensive change in the drive toward improved safety and reliability. He will be seeking “ways of using measurement instruments with safety features, and predictive tools to analyze the future breakdowns, if any.”

Some see trouble ahead. Cost cutting is real and inept managers can get in the way, according to Paul, reliability technician in the food and bakery products industry. “Reduced spending means more work for fewer people,” he said. “Younger, dumber managers are grabbing at straws to make the impression that they are saving money when they actually are costing more money.” Paul sees “less PDM, more putting out fires. We slip back into reactive work because management just never seems to grasp the idea ‘pay me now or pay me later.’ ”

“There’s a broader scope of equipment coming to the market that we will be required to test and repair,” said Herb, a certified biomedical equipment technician in the US. “We will learn to use the same techniques on the new equipment.” Paul, a master control technician at a US power generation facility, expects to do more in-house calibrations of test equipment.

These technicians know their business. Though their opinions about tomorrow vary, these are the experts. And until Fluke develops a Future Meter, we’ll rely on their predictions.