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Techs load their tool bags for a new year

New times, new techniques

March 2013

What's ahead for 2013?

Darn good question, one that will keep pundits pontificating about macroeconomic trends and forecasting the future through next December&helip;maybe longer.

But when your job is keeping systems up and running, the future has a way of getting in your face, today. You need to translate the long-term trends into the right moves on the job, right now.

We wanted to know what changes professional technicians expect in the New Year, and how those trends will affect them and the tools they will need on the job. In December 2012 we asked, through a survey on the Fluke website.

Says who?

A global group of some 35 professionals answered our survey: 11 from Canada, one each from Germany, India and Viet Nam, and 21 from the USA. More than one in three listed their job as maintenance technician. Eight (23 percent) work as electricians or electrical contractors. Others work in R&D, as process technicians, HVAC/R technician, mechanical engineer, and in restoration and remediation.

Where do they work? One in five works in manufacturing - automotive, plastics, and industrial and commercial machinery. The next largest industry (six respondents) was electric and gas utilities, followed by building and construction (four respondents) and transportation (three). We also heard from technicians in food and beverage, government, mining, industrial, communications, education, healthcare, biotech, and aerospace.

Here's what they told us.

The times they are a-changin'

Though a handful of respondents said they expect no change in their industry - or admitted they can't make a prediction - most said technologies and techniques will continue to evolve, as will the greater economy.

Some focused on broader industry trends. "Tight budgets, poor business economy, high fuel prices, more government regulations," predicted Rodger, who works in US automotive manufacturing. Dave, working in the water/waste water business, said "regulatory requirements are always increasing. This sometimes drives our process."

Much depends on where you sit. "We are replacing and modernizing a lot of older wire making equipment," said John, an in-house industrial electrician from Canada. "I expect the company will need more qualified electricians and more equipment to use for troubleshooting, calibrating, and monitoring."

For some, even in the same industry, the future looks very different. "The on-going uncertainty on the future of coal in future electricity generation across North America and particularly here in Ontario, Canada, will force some decisions in 2013 re: plant life expectations that will lead to significant impacts in electricity pricing farther out," said Ian, a mechanical engineer in a coal-fired generating station. But elsewhere in Canada, Larry, also working for an electric utility, predicts "more work as new dams come on line."

Others talked about changing technology. "It will be constantly changing, I believe it will soon be all digital control," said Chris, an instrument technician in Canada. "Reporting test equipment via the Ethernet," said Bob, a US industrial technician. David, a maintenance tech working for a state transportation agency, predicted "more applications of LED lighting."

Several predicted that the trend toward wireless systems will continue. "More wireless tech improvements," said William, a maintenance tech in manufacturing. Another manufacturing tech, Stan, had a similar view: "maybe more wireless trending testers," he predicted. "More wireless technologies," agreed Vito, a maintenance tech in Canada.

Wireless Tester

It's likely that the trend toward wireless systems, such as the Fluke CNX 3000 General Maintenance System, will continue.

New times, new techniques

Asked if they expect to deal with new technologies in the New Year, respondents split close to 50/50. Those who said yes pointed to a wide range of tech trends.

"Smaller and lighter devices and color display with better screen resolution," said Hugo, a Canadian electrical contractor. "More portable DSO scopes at lower prices," predicted Vito. "More communications with fiber optic links," said Richard, a utility protection and control tech. "Yes, but it's difficult to say what," said Ferdinand, who works in healthcare R&D in Germany. "Surely more integration of functions on one chip, as in electrocardiogram integrated circuits in the last years."

"We are in the process of installing numerous new machines," said John, the Canadian industrial electrician. "I know there will be new frequency drives and PLCs to program and troubleshoot." We heard a similar prediction from Dave, the US water utility technician. "We are moving to more automated control systems to upgrade physical plant installed in 1930s through 1950," he said. "More dealing with IP-based equipment," said Doug, who works for state government.

"Higher accuracy, remote display DMMs," was the prediction from Brian, an aerospace technician in the US. William, the US manufacturing maintenance tech, expected to see "more wireless, and non-invasive technology. Stand-off electrical testing and diagnostic equipment."

What does all this mean when it's time to step out on the job? Nearly half of respondents (15) said they won't be dealing with new techniques, or can't predict what's ahead. But others were specific.

"More PLC-based techniques," said Curt, a utility technician in Canada. "Begin utilizing documenting calibrator," said Thomas, a process tech in the food and beverage industry. "Wireless measuring," said Frank. Rodger agreed: "maybe a wireless multimeter."

"More use of mobile technologies to use in the plant," said Dave, the water utility technician. "The phone has gone from a voice communicator to a full computer and mobile workstation." John, an industrial electrician in Canada, looked to a higher power for help. "I am hoping that Santa will be kind enough to drop a new 196 series color ScopeMeter™ off," he said, "to help me in troubleshooting some of the longstanding intermittent issues we have on some of our older pieces of equipment." Best of luck, John - and let us know if your plan pays off.

TL175 TwistGuard™ Test Leads

Respondents plan to add a wide variety of new tools, if they can - perhaps new test leads as tough as their meter, like these TL175 TwistGuard™ Test Leads.

New in the tool bag

Do survey takers plan to stop using any test tools in 2013? Most said no. "I use them all," said Vito. "All tools are good, even the old ones," said Curt. "No," said Steve, a restoration technician. "If they are Fluke they pretty much work forever." James, a maintenance tech in transportation, added "I use most of the tools I own and what the shop has. No retirement yet."

A few, however, planned to phase out some instruments, including "my old multimeter," "600V meters," "CRT-based oscilloscope," "older analog test equipment," and "some tools we never use anyway." Other respondents said their budgets will allow replacement only for damaged tools.

To replace those older instruments, respondents plan to add a wide variety of new tools. Among those mentioned: thermal imagers; documenting calibrators like the Fluke 754 Documenting Process Calibrator-HART; digital multimeters (including the Fluke 28 II Industrial Multimeter and the Fluke 1587 Insulation Multimeter); oscilloscopes such as the Fluke 190 Series ScopeMeter®; the Fluke 435 Series II Power Quality and Energy Analyzer; amp clamps, including Fluke 77X series milliamp process clamp meters; as well as accessories like new test leads.

In the real world of 2013, of course, plans differ for each professional and every plant. "Cannot afford to upgrade or replace," said Elaine, who works R&D in plastic manufacturing. In contrast, Dave with the water utility said "we use our tools in the plant. They need to be constantly replaced." And sometimes, even when they're replaced, great tools stick around.

"I have an old Fluke 75 that I've been using since the 1980s," said Steve, who restores and recalibrates vintage test equipment. "It's being upgraded by the new Fluke 87V, but even though it's old it still works and is dead on. So it will continue on in my tool kit."

For a relateted article, see "What are the trends in workforce?" »
Find out about Steve's vintage radios and test equipment »