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Automation Can Neutralize The Lure Of Going Offshore

In response, IBM's vice president, Steve Mills, allowed that IBM's middleware (software that parses and standardizes data for inter-application integration) does facilitate the "virtualization" of the business process, which can facilitate outsourcing. But he pointed out that application outsourcing has been an accepted trend for many years. The current controversy surrounds the "offshoring" of those functions.

Echoing Ron Scheiderman's cover report on the complexities of outsourcing, Mills pointed out that the "virtualization" of the enterprise can also be a creator of U.S. jobs. He cited companies that have benefited greatly from the outsourcing trend, like ADP, the payroll firm.

Moreover, Mills noted that "virtualization" enables automation, the ultimate equalizer of the disparity in First- and Third-World pay scales. If the typical cost of a customer service call handled by a live rep using a CRM program is $7, said Mills, the cost of a call handled by an automated system is just 25 cents. IBM, a pioneer of voice recognition technology, reports that speech-driven automation applications are really gaining traction. And although call-center jobs are heading overseas, high-level automation systems development represents (hopefully) a net gain for the engineering community here in the U.S.

But while the theory of automation generating new jobs "higher up the food chain" makes sense, the question remains: What ensures that these high-value engineering jobs really will go to U.S. candidates? Reports on IBM's own outsourcing plans, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, emphasize the dualities of today's marketplace. On the one hand, IBM expects to move 3000 programming jobs overseas to its facilities in India and China in the coming year. On the other hand, the company also expects to add 15,000 jobs globally, with 5000 of those jobs in the U.S.

Ultimately, I believe, design engineering will continue to prosper in the U.S. because of the creativity and ingenuity inherent in our culture. I'm bullish on you readers. I also buy into the theory that greater levels of automation can indeed be a major driver for U.S. economic and job growth. As a community, you readers are in a position to make a tremendous difference as you invent and engineer the next wave of automation.

IBM says that its middleware is thriving as an enabler of "pervasive computing," offering a solution for sorting out the terabytes of nonstandard data funneled into corporate and government systems via a myriad of data-collection devices, including PDAs, cell phones, and ruggedized data-collection units. IBM sees rapid growth in networked sensors and actuators channeling data from environmental monitoring stations—from inside pipelines, machinery, and controllers. Other hot data-collection applications include RF ID for supply-chain automation and, of course, Homeland Security applications ranging from environmental monitoring to passport biometrics.

Internet applications enabled by XML are another driver of automation growth (and of middleware growth for IBM). Adobe, one of IBM's partners participating in the press day, is rolling out stage two of its PDF technology—now allowing for "fill and submit" applications, taking advantage of its ubiquitous Acrobat reader and creating an easy integration path for companies wanting to move manual forms to the Web.

Another IBM partner at the conference, ESRI, specializes in geographic information systems, or spatial data that can be integrated into myriad applications. For example, GIS data allows local governments and utilities to determine evacuation routes and disaster recovery plans informed by regional infrastructure. The GIS data can be ported to handheld devices to enable real-time action plans.

The cycle of data collection and automation is a self-perpetuating engine for economic and engineering growth. The more data we collect, the greater the need for new hardware and software processing tools. Once processed, the new data sets create new applications that call for ever more and ever faster data collection technologies. Onward and upward!

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