Exceptional Opportunities in Process Control – Articles and Books

After all is said and done, articles and books have been the main method of advancing and sharing the technology for industrial process control.

I don’t know of an undergraduate degree in process automation. Chemical, electrical, mechanical, and systems engineering programs offer an undergraduate course or two on process control. However, the typical university control course needs to spend most of the time on Laplace transforms, frequency response, and state-space to provide a theoretical understanding and groundwork for graduate courses. Outside of chemical engineering the focus is more on set point response and signal noise for servo mechanism and aerospace control. Consequently, the student doesn’t learn about the critical characteristics of control for the process industry where nonlinearities, deadtime, valve stick-slip, unmeasured load disturbances, and incredibly long time frames are the cause of most tuning and control loop performance problems. Throw into the mix the unknown features of proprietary PID algorithms, and you have a script for islands of expertise. I personally like tropical islands so maybe this is OK. I could retire to one and conduct web based courses instead of doing cross word puzzles.

Courses may not be the whole answer considering that more than 80% of the details presented are forgotten. The PowerPoint slides often don’t tell the real story. In my days, professors used the chalk board with only passing references to a book so my only record of knowledge is in notes long gone. Maybe the best way to make courses have a greater long term value is by providing labs for hands-on learning and refresher exercises, key memorable concepts, and resources for reference and further investigation. Audio should be combined with the presentation as exemplified by the slidecast of my Boston ISA presentation Exceptional Process Control Opportunities.

Considering that people don’t have time to read books maybe courses and seminars and the structure of books themselves could provide better direction to areas of specific interest to solve problems. This is an argument for electronic books with interactive queries and demos.

For process automation, the articles and books written by practitioners are our best way of capturing and advancing the technology. Unfortunately users are not given the time or priority to write and most companies are reluctant to disclose information that could be considered to provide a competitive advantage for manufacturing. Consequently, suppliers of automation systems and services write most of the magazine articles and books on the practical application of process control. University professors write most of the journal articles and technical conference papers on the theoretical advancements in process control. The two groups don’t talk much to each other. The use of industrial control systems for labs is one glimmering area of hope for the meeting of minds from universities and industry (see my last entry on “Exceptional Opportunities in Process Control – Expertise Development” and the June 1, 2009 entry “What I have Learned? – Bridging the Gap between Universities and Industry”).

For me writing books was a way of organizing and expanding knowledge gained on the job. I found it allowed me to put technologies to bed (at least temporarily) so I could clear my head for the next area of expertise. My serious technical books in order of oldest to most recent publication date are: Axial and Centrifugal Compressor Control, Biochemical Measurement and Control, Continuous Control Techniques for Distributed Control Systems, Tuning and Control Loop Performance, Advanced Temperature Measurement and Control, Process/Industrial Instruments and Controls Handbook, Good Tuning – A Pocket Guide, Advanced pH Measurement and Control, Advanced Control Unleashed, Models Unleashed, New Directions in Bioprocess Modeling and Control, and The Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements. My favorite book, which is a mostly serious collection of case histories written in a humorous way, is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Control Room. My mostly humorous books in order of oldest to most recent publication date are: How to Become an Instrument Engineer – The Making of a Prima Donna, Logical Thoughts at 4:00 am, How to Become an Instrument Engineer – Part 1.523, Dispersing Heat Through Conviction, The Life and Times of an Automation Professional – an Illustrated Guide, and The Funnier Side of Retirement for Engineers and People of the Technical Persuasion. The last two books were written solely for comic relief.

While I had to largely write the books on my own time (except for the last serious one), the companies I worked for were supportive in terms of approval and recognition. In the end I expect books helped me along with my heroes Shinskey and Liptak to be the first group of inductees into Control magazine’s Process Control Hall of Fame.

I think the following message titled “Why Books” from Ted Stillwell who is of the same vintage as me concisely offers “memories of the way we were.”

Because I learned process control on the job books provided the only formal learning environment. Starting with the first treatment plant, with a control panel that would not fit through the door, I began my knowledge quest about instruments and process control. Chemical Engineering published Process Automation a 14-Part Series. My first book purchase was Liptaks’ Instrument Engineers’ Handbook that I read commuting back and forth to the office. The process control companies offered a great training ground for young engineers. Highly experienced application specialists at these companies wrote most of the articles and books on process control. I have five books by Shinskey, the most recent being Feedback Controllers for the Process Industries (McGraw-Hill 1994).