Where are our control engineer heroes?

In process control, our heroes are few and far between, yet opportunities abound for engineering heroism. Just apply what you know to a field that needs it and maybe the world will finally appreciate you.

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By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

IN FICTION, my hero remains Jack Godell, the only control engineer to ever appear in a film. As you may recall, he was the chief engineer for the Ventana nuclear plant in China Syndrome (Columbia Pictures, 1979), which was threatened with a meltdown. Godell, played by Jack Lemmon, saved California by correctly identifying a stuck indicator on a level recorder, and taking action to prevent uncovering the core.

The only other fictional engineer/hero I can think of is the beloved Mr. Scott on Star Trek, played by James Doohan, who recently died.

In fiction, most engineers are often portrayed as evil villains, drunkards or otherwise despicable characters. Either that, or engineering plays no real part in their role. They are just “the engineer.”

In real life, there’s Bert Rutan of airplane fame, Antonio Gaudí the architect, Hewlett and Packard, Admiral Rickover, Moore of Moore’s Law, and many others. I am certain you can think of some; perhaps your own personal engineer-hero.

I bought a T-shirt with Gaudí’s picture on it because his accomplishments impressed me. Gaudí designed La Sagrada Familia, a cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, more than 100 years ago, using one of the first simulation models. He built an elaborate string model to determine the strength needed for the cathedral’s parabolic arches. Today, it would be a trivial problem for a CAD system, but back then simulation was an engineering breakthrough.

The original simulation model is still in the basement of La Sagrada Familia and is a wonder to behold.

In process control, our heroes are few and far between, and unknown to the world at large. We acknowledge the leaders of our profession in CONTROL’s annual Process Automation Hall of Fame, but none of them can point to a breakthrough or a development that influenced the world in general, and which the world acknowledges. They–and you–make the world a better, safer, more efficient place to be sure, but what we do is not stuff from which novels are written and movies are made.

Nyquist, Bode, O.J.M. Smith, DeMorgan and Dahlin all made automatic control possible for us, but I suspect few of you remember who they were or what they did. Quick: What did Dahlin do? (No fair Googling for the answer.) In spite of their breakthrough work, these five are not generally regarded as engineering heroes. To us, maybe, but not to the rest of the world.

Any of you have the potential to be an engineering hero. Just apply what you know to a field that needs it. Take the rip-off medical equipment world, for example, where sleazy companies profit obscenely from the misery of others, with the help of medical insurance.

Alex Zanardi, the two-time Indy car champion whose legs were cut off in a horrific accident in 2001, says, “It is ridiculous that a wheelchair like mine costs $3,500, when basically it is nothing more than a couple of bent pipes and four wheels.” Zanardi is applying race car technology to building prostheses and artificial knees because of generally piss-poor, albeit expensive, products for amputees.

A control engineer with experience in motors and drives could probably build a workable wheelchair for less than $1,000, and become a hero to disabled people worldwide.

Similar control technology could be applied to cancer treatment—such as robot-controlled radiation treatment machines—where medical science reaps its most obscene profits: $1,000 for a 10-minute application. That’s $6,000 per hour, $48,000 per day, or more than $1 million per month in revenues for a cancer center. Talk about obscenity! Anyone who can lower the cost of such medical instrumentation and machinery would be a hero to millions of cancer patients.

In the control industry, maybe you can design something that the “Big Boys” deem not worth their while. Scott Miller and William Bal are two boiler control engineers who designed a new flue gas analyzer for combustion efficiency monitoring on medium-size boilers, because what they wanted was not available. They formed Emission & Combustion Management Technologies, are doing a brisk business, and are probably heroes to a score of boiler operators.

On a lighter note, anyone who can bring modern HMI technology and human factors engineering to VCRs, DVD players and other electronic devices would be a hero to countless consumers.

Opportunities abound for engineering heroism. It may take a personal tragedy to fire you up, like it did Zanardi, but control and instrumentation engineering can be applied to many problems outside refinery fences. Maybe some day the world will finally appreciate us for something you do.
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