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ayoffs, cutbacks, outsourcing, retirements, forced retirements, mergers and consolidations are stripping plants of instrument engineers, control engineers, technicians, maintenance people and operators. Once gone, their accumulated knowledge of the plant&rsquos processes goes with them, leaving companies without in-house expertise. Companies are turning to vendors for help.
If current trends continue, most of you will no longer be working as a control engineer for an end user company 10 years from now. More likely you will be working for a systems integrator, a process control vendor, or a service company of some kind. Soon, there may be nobody left in the plants, your accountant-bosses will have subcontracted all the work out, and process control will have become another purchased utility, like electricity and water.
That&rsquos what happened to the engineering and technical staff who worked at the Danube Refinery, SzÃ¡zhalombatta, Hungary. The refinery is the biggest production facility of the MOL Group, a huge oil conglomerate in Europe. Eight years ago, 130 engineers and technicians worked in the refinery. Today, after downsizing, outsourcing and restructuring, all of them are gone.
&ldquoAs the former instrumentation department disappeared, most of its services were taken over by vendors like Honeywell,&rdquo says an MOL manager, who asked to remain anonymous. Another 45 employees were eliminated when the refinery contracted out operation of its wastewater and waste incineration facilities to EarthTech in the UK.
The refinery also gave Emerson $10 million to design and install a new control system as the main automation contractor (MAC) for a control project. As the MAC, Emerson will perform front-end engineering design, applications engineering and project management, install and commission the automation solution, and supply operator training.
That doesn&rsquot leave much work for the refinery&rsquos control people. &ldquoThe company tries to hire back or subcontract former MOL employees when it needs specific knowledge,&rdquo says the anonymous manager.
This is happening at smaller companies, too. &ldquoOur chief instrument engineer left for greener pastures, and was never replaced,&rdquo laments a manager of a small, specialty organic chemical manufacturer in the Midwest. &ldquoThen another instrument specialist left. Now we are relying on an engineering service to support our PLC programming, HMI programming and instrument specifications, and relying on process engineers to tune controllers. The few remaining instrument technicians we have do not have the time to tune controllers since there are too many other fires to put out.&rdquo
The power industry is an excellent example of what happens when knowledge leaves. As we point out in this month&rsquos Control Report (p31), no coal-fired power plants have been built in 25 years, all the people who knew how to control coal-related process have retired, and there is no one left–except a few vendors–who know how to control a coal-fired power plant. Many in the process industries are going down that road, too, as knowledge leaves the plants.
One reason for loss of institutional knowledge is the aging and shrinking workforce in our business. A CONTROL reader poll shows that 71% of you are 41–50 years old, and 12% of you are over 50. Only 3% of you are under 25 and ready to step into their shoes and learn the business. Few young engineers choose to enter our profession, maybe because their fathers warn them away. Or maybe young engineers avoid control because of the disturbing trend of process companies to contract out major parts of a control engineer&rsquos work and shut down entire instrumentation departments, as MOL did.
A Boon to Suppliers
There&rsquos no question that the loss of knowledge in plants is benefiting suppliers, such as process control vendors, systems integrators and service companies. &ldquoWe are seeing a very large upswing in engineering services,&rdquo says Bill Robertson, director of global services and support for process systems and solutions division of Emerson Process Management. &ldquoCustomers are increasingly outsourcing engineering services on new projects, migrations and, to some degree, ongoing system maintenance and operations.&rdquo
Honeywell says it takes deep pockets for a process company to keep up these days. &ldquoUnless a plant has the luxury of being able to overstaff and over-train, they will have to address the issue through the strategic use of suppliers who combine expert knowledge with technology that allows that knowledge to be disseminated out over a broad customer set,&rdquo says Andy Drexler, Global Marketing Leader, Services, Honeywell Process Solutions. Drexler, of course, means companies like Honeywell.
&ldquoTo prevent the impact of lost expertise, plants must carefully select partners whose expertise they can use on an â˜as needed&rsquo basis and who offer the technology to help less experienced workers quickly reach a level of proficiency that once required years of experience,&rdquo he adds.
ControlGlobal.com is exclusively dedicated to the global process automation market. We report on developing industry trends, illustrate successful industry applications, and update the basic skills and knowledge base that provide the profession's foundation.