A Head Start in Practical Process Control

The students at Washington University in Saint Louis are ahead of the curve by virtue of the efforts of affiliate professors Terry Tolliver and Robert Heider who have a combined total of more than 65 years of industrial experience at Monsanto and Solutia.

Terry Tolliver teaches a process control course for junior and senior chemical engineers. The students have access on their desk to a virtual plant with embedded high fidelity process simulations and industrial control modules, trends, and operator graphics. The following file shows the university, the virtual plant class room, and text book.

WU Virtual Plant

Robert Heider teaches a computer control lab for chemical and systems engineers that uses an industrial automation system for the control of actual process equipment, such as vessels, heat exchangers and dryers for blending, level, temperature, and moisture control. The equipment, piping, instrumentation and valves are assembled on a cart with quick connects for utilities and Fieldbus signals to make each lab portable. The following file shows one of the lab experiments.

WU Hardware Lab

After some concise instructions with screen prints, the students have had no difficulty in accessing and using the DeltaV DCS system. The only people who seem to have trouble are the other professors who are not accustomed to seeing an industrial control system, which is probably more of a justification than a prohibition for taking this approach.

Modern DCS systems use Fieldbus standards for control module configuration and parameters. Also, most operator graphics and industrial historians have a similar feel that is distinctly different or entirely missing from academic software. Statements that industrial systems are specific are valid if it is meant specific to industry and not a particular manufacturer. Even the 2% of the students who are going on to an advanced degree in control and a future life in academia are better equipped for working with industrial consortia by understanding industrial systems and terminology.

Washington University graduates understand standard Fieldbus terminology (CAS, RCAS, and ROUT modes) and even such far out stuff as the units of reset time (e.g. sec/repeat). They can act more intelligently when they first venture into the control room. Even if they don’t pursue a career in process control, since the DCS is the window into the process and method of affecting the process, WU students are better able to hit the ground running on their first job. After a few labs, a light comes on with chemical engineers. They understand the significance of this approach. With systems engineers it may not happen because they are hoping to end up at an aerospace firm rather than in a chemical plant.

I would ask any skeptics of the validity in using an industrial system in university labs to first speak to some of Terry’s students before passing judgment.