Exceptional Opportunities in Process Control – Expertise Development

Before my talk at the Boston ISA section meeting on Oct 20, I had the opportunity to interview Sarah Tremblay and Ted Stillwell, automation engineers for a company that designs water and wastewater treatment systems. Sarah has a degree in mechanical engineering and has been on the job for one month. Ted has over 40 years of experience in the process industry. Like me, Ted started out in construction so he got a lot of first hand experiences on what worked in the field. The interview was an informal discussion for an upcoming Control Talk column on “Expertise Development” probably with a more catchy title such as “The Future is Now.”

When I started as an E&I design and construction engineer after graduating with a degree in engineering physics, I went to a 12 week instrument school. One of the attendees at the ISA talk says he knows a company that had a 9 month training program. Such on-the-clock courses and programs are rare. Are we missing the boat? Sarah effectively said “not really” because such an intensive and extended training would not mean much to a new engineer who has not developed a real feel for the job. Sarah is learning by being responsible for small parts of a project. She asks a lot of questions. She visits job sites and goes on panel checkouts with Ted to see how designs translate to actual installations. This is the time honored tradition of how expertise is developed on the job. In 5 to 10 years, you have a proficient engineer. In my case, my development was accelerated by being sent after instrumentation school to E&I field construction for 2 years for the building or renovation and startup of 5 production units. Since sending new engineers to E&I construction is not a widely viable option, what can be done to improve this process?

There are no easy answers. Courses in chemical, electrical, mechanical, and systems engineering should have more emphasis on process measurement and control as practiced in industry. Practitioners (especially recent graduates) should be invited to give guest lectures on case histories of process control improvements and the type of jobs in the process industry. It should be emphasized that regardless of whether the job is in engineering, research, or production, all engineers rely on the automation system to see, analyze, and interact with the process. You need to know how to understand the system’s interface and functionality to take full advantage of the systems capability. Process control labs with industrial control systems should be an essential part of this learning experience. Many of the leading universities have taken this approach as described in the June 1, 2009 entry on this web site “What I have Learned? – Bridging the Gap between Universities and Industry.”

Sarah made a good point that course labs can be too controlled. The script is fixed and the student doesn’t have the opportunity to explore different scenarios and ideas, implying the falsehood that on-the-job situations are typically as uneventful. To help address this issue, I think these labs should be offered as a stand-alone course rather than in addition to a “hands on” experience to demonstrate points in a lecture course. I think the lab should consist of both a physical and a virtual plant for the same unit operation. The virtual plant would allow the student to take the operation and control system to places not practical to achieve because of time and equipment limitations.

This education process needs to ongoing. It should not stop with the new job. Since extended training programs may be too much too soon besides being impractical from a standpoint of cost and time in today’s work place, periodic seminars and demonstrations with a virtual plant would seem to be the most effective approach. Case histories and updates on technological advances are essential. The seminars and labs can be conducted via the web if interaction between the presenter and attendee is not sacrificed. Companies need to provide the time and encouragement for ongoing education. The ISA Certification of Automation Professionals (CAP) should be part of the career plan. Participation in ISA should be part of growth process for both the individual and ISA. There should be a company library of the best books on process measurement and control (see next week’s entry here for my short list). Users should be encouraged to publish to help solidify their experience and share it with the profession. I always learned something about my application in the process of having to describe the problem, considerations, concept, and solution. See my May 28, 2009 entry “What have I Learned – Writing” on what worked for me. Sarah with a minor in English is ideally situated for this endeavor.

Given that the education process takes years of on-the-job experience it is critical that companies hire new automation engineers now to insure the existing expertise is transferred before the expertise is gone. See my Control Talk Column series Going, Going, Gone Part 1 (August), Part 2 (September), and Part 3 (October) for a discussion with some key people from what is probably the best process control group in the USA.

Most of the experienced engineers here in the USA are members of AARP.