What Have I Learned? – Bridging the Gap between Universities and Industry

Sometimes it seems universities and industry reside on planets that are light years apart. Too bad we don’t have Star Ships with warp drive. Universities have leading edge research. Industry has “state of the art implementation.”

Why are universities and industry “worlds apart?”

Engineers in industry don’t seem to understand how to apply the research from universities. Professors don’t appear to really know what is needed in industry. The tools are quite different. Engineers in chemical, pharmaceutical, and pulp & paper plants configure their control strategies in a distributed control system (DCS). Professors typically have their graduate students program their algorithms and test cases in Matlab.

One way to get industry and universities on the same page is to provide a DCS to the university with all the tools needed for research, such as a Matlab interface. In many cases the Matlab code can end up being configured in the DCS as part of the maturation of the innovation. The use of the DCS minimizes the reinvention of the wheel, such as the PID algorithm with all of its evolutionary enhancements. The setup facilitates the transfer of knowledge between the universities and industry. Being able to explore, prototype, and demo university innovations in a DCS makes it more real to industry and leads to rapid deployment and sharing of actual plant results.

If there is a unit operations lab, process control lab, or pilot plant, the DCS can be used to control the equipment used in the experiments. Students gain valuable experience in learning how to work with a toolset that is designed to meet industrial standards. Just learning the nomenclature and working with a DCS gives the student practical skills and confidence when as a new employee the student enters the control room. The window to see and affect the process is the DCS. Whether the student is going into automation or process design & technology, the student needs to be able to understand how to access and review modes, limits, options, and variables that determine how well a process runs. For example, the student gets to work in a university DCS on PID features commonly used in industry:

(1) PID limits (e.g. output, set point, and anti-reset windup limits)

(2) PID options (e.g. set point tracking of the process variable in manual, dynamic reset limiting, and nonlinear gain modification)

(3) PID form (series and standard)

(4) PID structure to determine whether each PID mode (proportional, integral and derivative) works on the process variable or the error (difference between the set point and the process variable)


The first semester I taught the Chemical Engineering course “Introduction to Process Dynamics and Control” at Washington University in Saint Louis as an adjunct professor, the students could not relate to my attempt to introduce practical plant applications and considerations in the normal course of Laplace transforms and bode plots. The second semester I added a virtual plant that consisted of a DeltaV DCS running in the Simulate mode integrated with HYSYS dynamic process simulations for each student. I later configured most of the process simulations directly in control studio. I was amazed how fast the students learned how to work in the graphical configuration environment and operator interface. All they needed was a few screen prints on navigation to get them started. Several of the students subsequently got intern or permanent positions doing configuration at the local DCS industry center. I had these students with experience in the automation industry come back to speak to the next class. The result was a dramatic turnaround in appreciation and understanding of what they would face in industry. The students decided on their own to go online to find and buy tee-shirts with Duncan, the DCS mascot, windsurfing. I ended up buying tee-shirts too and we all posed for a group photo by one of the students.

The main obstacle to the use of the DCS in the university is the initial installation and training. This is addressed by the support of industries with the same DCS who have a working relationship with the university and the local business partners of the DCS supplier. This method has enabled over 100 DeltaV DCS installations at educational institutions.

At the Automatic Control Conference in Saint Louis on June 11, I am co-chairing a session with Professor Tom Edgar from the University of Texas on “Bridging the Gap between Universities and Industry.” The presentations are:

(1) “Bridging the Gap Between Universities and Industry”

(2) “Digital Process Control Lab at Washington University”

(3) “The Bioprocess Laboratory at Washington University”

(4) “Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Unit Operations Laboratory”

(5) “Engineering Research Center for Structured Organic Particulate Synthesis (Rutgers, Purdue, New Jersey Institute of Technology, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez)”

(6) “Using a Distributed Control System (DCS) for Distillation Column Control in an Undergraduate Unit Operations Laboratory (University of Texas)”

My next blog will be June 22. In the mean time enjoy summertime.