Institutional knowledge for the future

Knowledge earned by hard work and experience in process automation is waning at an alarming rate, but there are a few shining lights on the industrial landscape. CONTROL Editor in Chief Walt Boyes comments.

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By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

IF YOU read the A-list (that’s the Automation List, run for years by Control Technology Corp.) for any length of time at all, you notice students writing in for help on projects in automation and control. You also notice that for most of those students, English is strictly a second language.

At a time when a decent automation engineer in India makes about $300 per month, Indian controls students are lining up to take courses like the four-month diplomate in embedded systems design at CDCC-Pune. This course even includes designing wireless embedded systems. The course runs about $1,000, or more than three times an engineer’s monthly salary, but CDCC has a waiting list!

Yet here in North America, however, we have a shortage of qualified process automation engineers, technicians and operators.

“We did a study last year (2004),” says a senior engineer, who works for an extremely large oil refining and production company, “of 63 analyzer technicians in [our Gulf Coast] plants, and the average age was 47. Some ‘newer’ plants had average ages even older, since these folks had been there since the doors opened.” 

The average age of ISA’s members has been increasing with the calendar for nearly 20 years, and the last time I looked it was around 48. When you couple this with the new Process Analyzer Technology (PAT) movement, inspired by the FDA in food and pharma, and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance in other industries, we’re not just facing a shortage of trained personnel. We may not be able to actually comply with the government’s directives in only a few short years.

For years now, the giant refining and production firm, and its peers, solved the problem by hiring the expertise out. However, analyzer operations and repair companies, and the divisions of large automation companies that also do this work, are swamped, and the pressure is increasing. They have the same problem the refinery does. The average age of analyzer specialists at these companies is, if anything, slightly higher than the average ages of technicians still working at refineries and other plants that heavily use analyzers.

Pretty soon, we’re going to either have to import analyzer technicians and engineers in job lots from India and other places, and that may not even be enough, because the economies of India and China are growing fast enough to absorb all of the technically-trained people they can grow.

So we’d better start growing our own.

Companies all over the manufacturing landscape are partnering with schools. I want to highlight one automation company, because they have put their money up front to ensure their future.

It comes from National Instruments’ (NI) holiday card: “In the spirit of sharing and in support of our focus on education, NI is reaching out to the Austin Children's Museum to help outfit the museum's after-school and summer robotic camps with Lego Mindstorms for Schools.” And NI has even done well by doing good, partnering their LabView software with Lego.

Dear automation vendors: I've shown you what National Instruments is doing as a model for what you should be doing. Please notice that it looks like NI will be doing well, as well as doing good with this project. Not only do they ensure that young people will head toward robotics and automation as career choices by doing this, but they also get to sell product now and in the future.

If you are doing stuff like this, tell me. If you aren't doing stuff like this, tell me why not!

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