Seeing deeply into process control technologies

Executive Editor Jim Montague finds that even if there’s nothing new under the sun, what’s truly new may be a deeper understanding and appreciation of what we thought was so familiar.

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Jim MontagueBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

IF I PAY attention, almost every day I’ll see something that I’ve never seen before. One winter day, for example, I saw a walled snow fort covering the top of a red minivan.

Another time, while flying in a 12-seat airplane up California’s coast, I noticed that my empty soda pop can was revolving in its shallow tray-table holder without anyone touching it! I thought the plane was haunted until I realized its vibrations were causing the can to rebound imperceptibly within the slightly larger circle, which created torque and motion, like a slow-moving rotary engine. In one long ago police blotter, I wrote about a routine search for some stolen tools, which led to an inventive young boy, who had boosted the sideboards from an entire outdoor ice rink, and reassembled them into a ramp for jumping his bicycle!

Truth isn’t just stranger than fiction, it’s often totally incomprehensible until it occurs in reality. That’s one reason I enjoy covering process control and automation—more and better surprises.

Still, the drumbeat of routine can make it a challenge to find what’s new and interesting as the weeks and years pile up. Maybe it’s one of the occupational hazards of experience—mistakenly thinking you’ve seen everything—like the 19th Century U.S. patent official who famously said everything that could be invented had been invented. Naturally, the same fatigue can overtake control engineers, technical professionals, and journalistic hangers-on like me, especially after writing about my 2,000th terminal block or its 20th version, whose only distinguishing characteristic this year seems to be that its jacket now comes in sea foam green. Ho freakin’ hum. Many improvements—like bottled water, energy-wasting SUVs, water-logged hams and vegetables, extra-thick towels that never dry, and more costly macaroni and cheese in cartoon shapes—aren’t really improvements.      

So, I must confess that I wasn’t expecting much when I recently traveled to Boulder, Colo., to visit Emerson Process Management and its Micro Motion division for their Perspectives 2006 event. Of course I was wrong, as I usually am when I anticipate the future. I was wrong because Emerson and Micro Motion unveiled multivariable digital (MVD), sensor-transmitter, and self-diagnostic improvements that make their Coriolis flowmeters more accurate, stable, and widely applicable, especially in entrained-gas measurement. The flowmeters reportedly not only reach new levels of mass and flow accuracy, but also double traditional density accuracy, which allows them to be used in previously unsolvable bubble and slug flow settings, as well as in empty-fill-empty transient batching applications.        

However, beyond these technological advances, I was wrong to anticipate for an even more important reason. I forgot that just getting out of the office and talking to people about what they care about is what lights me up personally, and many of the folks at Micro Motion were particularly energetic sources of the specific input I find interesting and hope is useful to readers.  

For example, while showing how Micro Motion’s new temperature and rain chamber is used to test flowmeters, engineering technologist Dana Bates reported that she and her colleagues still effectively use an old method of sprinkling baby power inside flowmeter housings, so any clumping will indicate where there’s a moisture leak.

Rock Tanner, supplier quality director, reported that Micro Motion is updating its X-ray weld-inspection equipment from film to digital, but this conversion was held up until he could find a way to calibrate the new devices. The old X-ray used strips of metal, but the digital camera’s multi-dimensional capabilities meant that Tanner had to investigate and eventually settle on using special ball bearing as calibration guides.

Similarly, principal design engineer Mark Bell demonstrated how Micro Motion developed and fine tunes its multi-phase fluid stand, which separates and measures water and oil levels. And metallurgists Gerri Berry and David Murdock showed how Micro Motion continuously updates its corrosion guides and materials, and how they use forensic metallurgy to conduct failure analyses.

Finally, Joel Weinsten, an intern from the University of Colorado, showed how another Micro Motion test stand uses two-phase flow to test for entrained air in fluid samples supplied from end users’ own applications.

All of these professionals showed how they use technological expertise, traditional common sense, and inspired thinking to create, test, and support Micro Motion’s solutions. While product launches usually get most of the corporate glory, it’s the people behind them and their intangible contributions that make them shine brightest.

So, the next time you get flooded with new and improved non-improvements, get out and find some engineers and other colleagues to interact with directly. They reminded me that, even if there’s nothing new under sun, what’s truly new may be a deeper understanding and appreciation of what we thought was so familiar.

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