An engineering profession must have a clear view of itself, and process control engineers don't. An engineering profession must also have an image in the minds of the general public, and the process control profession has no image at all. In fact, most people have no idea what our profession is.
Even within engineering organizations, we are just the guys whose offices are somewhere between the electrical and chemical engineering departments and whose job is to pick out gadgets from catalogs and go to long business lunches with vendors. This must change!
We must realize that process control is the fastest growing engineering profession. It is the most vibrant and has the greatest perspectives of all fields of engineering. Process control is the only profession capable of optimizing ANY process and it can do that while holding all critical process variables within a safe control envelope. The potentials of our profession are limited only by our imagination. Process control can optimize more than industrial, biological, military, or space exploration processes, it can also be used to control environmental, economic, cultural, and social processes.
Yet there is not a single process control expert in the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, there are only a few universities that even offer degrees (not Ph.D.s, just bachelor's and master's degrees) in process control.
Even the existence of these few process control departments or process control courses is not the result of the recognition of our profession by academia. No, it is the result of the outstanding efforts of such individuals as Miguel Bagajewicz, Eric Byres, Armando Corripio, Halit Eren, Richard Gilbert, Joel Hougen, Babu Joseph, William Luyben, Gregory McMillan, Sam Mannan, Charles Moore, Paul Murrill, Michael Piovoso, Howard Roberts, Derrick Rollins, Michael Shaffer, Cecil W. Smith, Ralph Smith, Amos Turk, Michael Waller, Harry West, Marvin Weiss, Peter Wellstead, George Whittle, or Theodore Williams. Yet, when I taught process control at Yale University, my course was offered by the chemical engineering department. Why? Because Yale has no process control department.
Similarly, the fact that 44 states offer a PE license in Control System Engineering is not due to the acceptance of our profession by the establishment, but is due almost solely to the dedicated efforts of Tom Stout.
The Role of Our Professional Society
It is high time our universities and other scientific institutions recognized the existence of process control as a distinct and respectable engineering profession. It is also high time for ISA (the abbreviation today stands for Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation) to concern itself less with the advertising dollars of vendors and more with becoming a truly professional society.
It is also time for ISA to take the lead not only in reintroducing the simple (and still valid) rules of Ziegler and Nichols (1941), the control principles of Donald Eckman (1958), the optimization theories of Page Buckley (1964), the feed-forward and nonlinear concepts of Greg Shinskey (1967), and the mathematical models of William Luyben (1973), but to help our profession to face the challenges of the digital age.
These challenges are in two areas. One area is in the critical evaluation of how smart the various so-called smart instruments are. It is the responsibility of our professional society to provide expert guidance to evaluate the hidden software in these smart products and to clearly distinguish the sales gimmicks from the truly original new inventions.
Another area where ISA should take the lead is in unifying the various supplier or group of suppliers-initiated digital protocols into a single and fully open, universal standard. This step is a must not only because today's digital protocols limit competition by creating captive markets, but also because systems that need translators to communicate are cumbersome and unsafe. To take on such a global role, ISA should probably change not only its attitude, but also its name--ISA's new name could be something like International Society of Automation.
If ISA can do that, if it can take the lead in developing a truly open and universal digital network standard, the process control profession will have made a step towards gaining not only self-respect, but also the respect of others. This will occur because we will have made a major contribution to both the safety and the efficiency of all our industries. And most importantly, it will occur because we will have started to accept that the process control profession can make a major contribution to the progress of all mankind.
Bla Liptk, PE, process control consultant, is also editor of the Instrument Engineers' Handbook and is seeking new co-authors for the forthcoming new edition of that multi-volume work. He can be reached at email@example.com.