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May
12

Who Are We?

We should be proud to say we are automation control engineers (ACEs). We need to create better public awareness of our importance. We can do this by communicating to all who will listen what is the essence of what is often an unknown and underrated career. Social media is a largely untapped resource for the practicing engineer to communicate with a much more expansive impact. For example, this site has grown to getting about 20,000 hits per month.

The main message we need to convey is “automation control engineers are responsible for protecting people, the environment, and jobs in the production of nearly everything used today.” We play a critical role in society as part of the technical community (Engineers Take a Bow).

If you have aroused the curiosity of your audience you can offer more information. For examples, you can take the essence of the messages in the articles in Sustainable Plant, an excellent publication in providing details on the value and interrelationships of safety, compliance, and profitability. Automation is crucial in all types of manufacturing to meet these objectives.

My career has been in the process industry, where fluids flow through pipes. I have modeled, designed, installed, and/or commissioned automation systems that are critical for food and beverage, oil and gas, pharmaceutical, chemical, and petrochemical manufacturing and environmental protection. Almost everything we see, touch, and consume is processed as a fluid. While many of these products are obviously fluids, such as beverages, the quality of other products such as metals, paper, pills, powders, plastics, and textiles are set as fluids in the beginning of the manufacturing process. Nearly all of the health and beauty products start out and/or end up as fluids. Many foods are fluids or are enhanced by fluids (e.g. sauces). Automation control engineers in the process industry are responsible for the measurement of fluid conditions (e.g. fluid composition, flow, level, pH, pressure, and temperature) and the control of these conditions at the right targets by adjusting flows to deal with upsets, failures, and changing market demands. The ability to control at targets has enormous implications as to safety, efficiency, and quality. We prevent injuries and emissions. We make plants profitable and sustainable.

If conditions get too far away from target (out of bounds for golfers), we are responsible for the automated safety systems that effectively return the process to normal or shut down the necessary sections of the plant. However, the goal of every automation control engineer is to design the basic control system to keep the process within bounds so the activation of safety systems does not occur. This job is formidable because with fluids, there are a large and variable delay, speed, and final value of the response not seen in the flight control or discrete parts manufacturing. These dynamics are too difficult for the human brain and the results are not repeatable. Consequently, the plant, people, and the environment are most at risk when an operator has to manually control a process. Automation elevates the human role to one of supervision of plant performance, maintenance, and generating process control improvements.

 I encourage you to rejuvenate our profession by sharing this perspective, using social media, and getting involved in our technical organization the International Society of Automation (ISA). We are ISA. We need to come out of the shadows and be recognized for what we do.