Three Things Control Engineers Have Been Thankful for in 2021

November 25, 2021 by Aline Dias

Let’s look back at trends in 2021 and see what has skyrocketed industrial automation in the last year.

Between 2020 and 2021, we’ve all had a few tough years. The pandemic, supply chain shortages, and other issues have dominated the industry. However, there are a few things that we can be thankful for this year.


Increased Cybersecurity in Industrial Control Systems (ICS)

At the height of the pandemic, many malicious actors were attacking critical industrial infrastructures and devices, such as wastewater facilities, pipelines, and smart meters. These infrastructures are pertinent to running the city, state, or even country.

Smart meters can read energy output in residential buildings, but also industrial power grids. As operational technology (OT), some suggest these devices are easily hackable. When a wastewater facility is held hostage by ransomware, water becomes unavailable to the city. As seen from the Texas power outage, a lack of energy and water can quickly become a large issue.

When the Colonial Pipeline was hacked by ransomware, we also saw a large uptick in mass hysteria. The pipeline is a critical infrastructure for most of the southeast U.S., meaning several states began running low (or out of) gas. Due to this, the community started mass buying gas, thus reducing the product even more in those areas.


The Blade Risk Manager's interface. Image used courtesy of Acquired Data Solutions


Thankfully, companies and the U.S. government are recognizing the massive cyber threat to critical infrastructure, and are creating new cybersecurity solutions. For instance, the Biden Administration signed a new bill into effect to help protect critical infrastructure. Additionally, companies such as Rockwell Automation and Acquired Data Solutions are creating softwares that will scan for cyber threats and detect vulnerabilities in current ICSs.


Increased Educational Programs in Automation

Controls, automation, and mechatronics education programs are notoriously scant. Typically, to enter this arena, you end up getting a bachelor’s degree in Electrical or Mechanical Engineering and then sliding into the industrial field.

However, many programs have arisen over the past few years. Specifically, in 2021, Amazon announced a mechatronics and robotics program. Also this year, Mitsubishi Electric announced a partnership program, where they will send price-reduced equipment to universities and even send teachers to their certified academy for free. Other programs are arising, as well, such as the IT3 Innovation Center in Oregon, which will teach students and industry professionals the basics of robotics, PLCs, and more.


Video used courtesy of Amazon


With the rise in educational programs, the skills and labor gaps may slowly start to close.


Supply Chain Shortages

You may be wondering, “Why should we be thankful for the supply chain shortages?” The simple answer is that, hopefully, it helps point out issues within your supply chain so you can better prepare for next year. 

  • Have a ship stuck in the Suez Canal? Now we know to have backup routes planned. 
  • Dealing with constant semiconductor chip shortages? Look into partnering with a company manufacturing their own.


Intel’s Rio Rancho, NM semiconductor manufacturing facility. Image courtesy of Intel


Both of these issues point to solutions such as reshoring and veering away from lean manufacturing (or just-in-time, JiT). Companies and the U.S. government have increased reshoring efforts this year to help prevent similar occurrences in 2022. 

Another way to help prevent these issues is to automate your supply chain. From manufacturing execution systems (MES) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) to autonomous cargo shipping, there are many ways to automate the supply chain and value chain.

After looking back at trends in 2021, we can better prepare for 2022. What are some things you’ve been thankful for this year?

1 Comment
  • D
    David_2 November 28, 2021

    I installed a data acquisition (DAQ) system on thermal oxidizers in 2018 for a customer.  The field devices communicated to the historian via the corporate intranet over Ethernet.  Everything ran flawlessly until the company did a ‘network upgrade’ about a month ago.  Only one of the 7 field devices continued to report to the historian and that stopped after a power cycle and cold restart.  I suspected that the upgrade included managed switches which were not programmed for this specific traffic, but that was not the case.  The field device DAQ vendor had a firmware update what were ‘exposed ports’ that apparently were detected by software monitoring in the newly upgraded network.  The monitoring software disabled communications with ‘bad boy’ field devices with exposed ports.  The firmware updates fixed the field devices (now with non-exposed ports) which now communicate with the historian.  There were other security upgrades in the firmware that have not been publicized.  Good to know that there is increased cyber security vigilance.

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