Past, Present, and Future of Automation – Part 2

As I was running, I reflected on what more I could do to convey what I have learned on the job to help advance a profession that has been so interesting and rewarding.

Except for one citation of an individual who had read Advanced Control Unleashed from cover to cover in preparation for the exam to receive ISA’s Certified Automation Professional (CAP) status, I doubt anyone has completely read any of the serious books I have authored or coauthored. On the other hand, all of my humorous books have been read totally and even passed around. Since some of these books also conveyed technical concepts and field experiences especially A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Control Room (available free as an E-book at http://www.modelingandcontrol.com/FunnyThing/), I may have accomplished more advancing the state of practical control knowledge with these books, especially since humor breaks down barriers and opens up minds. At any rate, it is nice to hear people say they enjoy the books and to see the cartoons used in ISA publications and at ISA events. At ISA Expo 2008 there was an almost life size cartoon of Stan (¾ size of me) from our most recent Funnier Side of Retirement …. book that showed us pitching our Quantum Mechanics and Astro Physics college text books in the trash as we headed from Woodstock to employment as Instrument Engineers.

So despite all the accomplishments why did the HQ engineering department of the chemical company I started with go from 1500 employees in 1970 to 5 employees in 2008? How did this happen to company who has had 5 former employees inducted into the Automation Hall of Fame? Well, it is not as bad as it sounds in that nearly every one of the thousands of engineers that once worked at the chemical company found jobs at contract engineering firms. All of them who were made eligible to leave were given compensation such as 2 weeks pay for every year of service. The company gave incentives to probably the most brilliant supervisor and a lead engineer to leave and start a contract automation engineering firm. This firm absorbed the all the early and late retirees from their former company and other process companies in the area and rapidly grew to over 100 E&I and configuration engineers. When I tried to take a similar deal to leave and do modeling and control in the engineering department of a local DCS rep, the incentive was magically pulled. Maybe they knew I would return because I was more comfortable as a user. When I finally retired, there was no bonus or gift. Maybe they thought it wasn’t for real. I am proud to say that Terry Tolliver and I are rare examples of retirees at the key management level without even a nylon parachute.

While the cited example is extreme, it seems the general trend is that many chemical companies have cut back severely on their HQ and in some cases the plant staff to rely on contract engineering firms. Pharmaceutical companies may be headed in the same direction whose products were predominantly chemical based and facing stiff generic competition. So what does this mean to the engineer in college? Can he or she find a job?

The contract engineering firms don’t have enough people. One particular firm only has half the people it needs. These firms relied on the chemical companies to train and provide employees but that source has dried up. I see a possible solution.

Why not offer a masters program in automation? The students would take their normal courses required to get a B.S. in chemical, petrochemical, biochemical, electrical, or systems engineering and then take electives that are practical courses in automation taught by adjunct professors from industry. The students would intern in the process industry (in both plants and contract engineering firms) and would spend the fifth year exclusively taking automation course that included design projects similar to what they would be involved in as a contract engineer. You might even get a large number of students from overseas where most of the action is today. In fact, an international aspect to the program would be essential.

Next week I will talk about what happened to all those expert systems and the dozen or so engineers I knew who were working on them. Gosh you would have thought with all the specialists gone, these systems would have been the key to retaining expertise.