The changing face of automation engineering

CONTROL looks at lights-out plants, online as-builts, remote asset management, and all the other things that will be necessary to make up for the lack of trained automation professionals in the next 20 years.

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Brazil and Venezuela have GDPs growing at 17%, and most these increases is in exports to China. We can’t plan on domestic versus ROW anymore. A U.S. company with exports that account for only 10-20% of total revenue is in serious need of a coffin.

Global Unrest Adds Spice
The Chinese are correct when they say that “interesting times” are scary and fraught with danger. Revolutions never happen when the oppressed are the most downtrodden, but usually occur after they’ve been given some relief, albeit “not fast enough.” Most of the world is considerably more stable than it used to be, but there are still places, such as Venezuela, Brazil, China, Indonesia, and the Middle East, where the economies aren’t large enough yet to support a sizeable middle class, and provide jobs for all the available workers. For the first time, these workers are being exposed to all the goodies of Western Civilization. Some are happy and want the goodies; some are unhappy and don’t want them; and some are even jealous enough to want to steal them.

Moving to Higher-Order Technology
It used to be thought that North American and Western European companies, both vendors and integrators, would simply move into the Third World as soon as the undeveloped countries developed enough to make the market worthwhile. While these companies waited, indigenous integrators and vendors developed in many Third World areas, and now are competing straight up for the same projects. The recent announcement of the Global System Integrator Alliance shows one of the reactions of First World companies: make alliances with these indigenous companies.

In the early days, we were all concerned with sensors, measurement, and final control elements—how to build the watch. Later it became imperative that we know how to tell time—how to close control loops. Our skill sets expanded yet again when it became obvious that it wasn’t enough to be able to build the watch and tell time, but now we had to know what the benefits of being on time were—expanding the benefits of control to the entire plant via distributed control systems.

Even though this is where a lot of us stopped, it just isn’t enough. We know how sensors work, we know how loops work, and we know how to control a process. Unfortunately, the required skill set has expanded again. Now we have to understand scheduling. Our primary value is to see to it that information from the plant is transmitted to the enterprise. We’re now working on fourth-order concepts.

Smarter controls need smarter people. Yet schools and universities are graduating fewer and fewer engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what will happen if this trend isn’t reversed. System integrators, vendors, and end users alike are asking their people to do more with less, and that means smarter people, with smarter tools, and a clear grasp of the way the process works. This means that the market for knowledgeable automation workers is actually increasing worldwide, but these will be automation workers who understand the entire picture from the sensor to the enterprise.

We’ve talked for the last few years about disruptive technologies. This is what we mean when we talk about the oncoming train. Taken together these disruptive technologies will create tomorrow’s process plant. Small teams of engineers and operators will use integrated simulation to model the plant, and push that data into design/draw software, which will produce plant and the control system designs. AIDC sensors and wireless asset management transmitters will continuously update the “live as-builts” for maintenance and management.

The operator will be a supervisor, making sure that real-time performance management systems, advanced process control systems, and asset management systems are working properly through new inputs via wireless and the ability to go mobile, so the control system can be accessed from anywhere in the plant or elsewhere.

Control Process Automation Hall of Famers McMillan and Blevins Speak Out


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Terry Blevins, of Emerson Process Management, and Greg McMillan, a retired control uber-guy from Solutia and a Control columnist, met recently with editor-in-chief Walt Boyes to discussed the future of the control system. Between them they have more than a 100 years of experience in automation and process control. McMillan is a leading expert on pH and other wet chemistry sensors and on advanced process control. Blevins is the most successful distributed control system designer in the world. Both are members of Control’s Process Automation Hall of Fame.


Boyes: We keep hearing that PID is dead. We’re told that numerous sensors, not just the most important one for each single loop, will be connected directly to a database, and advanced-rule engines will extract patterns from that data, and automatically control all the final elements in the plant. Do you see that?

McMillan: What’s missing from the advanced-rule engine is that a process is inherently dynamic. These rules use process snapshots, instead of understanding the dynamic response. Process engineers think steady-state for process design. For control design, it’s necessary to consider control dynamics and unmeasured disturbances. This problem may also be encountered when batch sequencing is use to perform functions better addressed by continuous control techniques such as PID and MPC.

Blevins: For example, to avoid a temperature overshoot, batch logic might “shut the steam valve when the temperature exceeds a specific value.” There’s no direct connection with the desired result of achieving a target temperature.

Boyes: So what do we do? Redesign the control system?

McMillan: No, instead of redesigning the control system, we need to effectively apply traditional and advanced control techniques that account for process dynamics. Why use rules, when a variety of advanced control techniques are embedded in modern control systems?

Boyes: That’s an Emerson product.

McMillan: It’s still a good idea. One reason that advanced process control projects often fail is that model-based control isn’t embedded in the control system, so tools and skills are need to update the control system for process change. Thus, APC may not be maintained, and it starts being ignored.

Blevins: If you build the APC into the control system, instead of layering it on top of the control system, then two things happen. First, the APC is updated when anything changes. Second, the APC’s operation becomes more transparent to the operator, just like the traditional PID controller.

McMillan: Another benefit is that APC is designed to work with the regulatory control. For example, when an engineer changes a control setting or operator during startup, this may put a loop into manual. This embedded APC will notice things like that, and automatically take proper action to provide bumpless transfer when the loop is placed back in automatic control.

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