By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
THE DEVIL YOU do know may be lying about the one you don’t know. Sure, your old pal is supposed to be better than the unknown, but he may be just trying to distract you from confronting him head-on and defeating or at least controlling him better. Remember FDR’s famous “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” quote?
So, yes, technical advances and upheavals blur process control roles almost daily. Of course, more engineers are retiring and more jobs are fleeing to other countries. And, undoubtedly, the continual economic pressure to do more with less seems to be the only constant.
However, while these forces may be real, they still aren’t the toughest or nearest problem that process control engineers must solve. Their biggest challenge is still the one they’ve always faced, and the one for which their profession was created—to accurately sense, decide, and act. Designing, implementing, operating and maintaining efficient process applications remains the goal, and there are many new and useful tools to help them work together to achieve it. However, accuracy still too often remains out of reach because consistent specifications aren’t drafted, real collaboration doesn’t happen and applications languish and fail sooner than they would with more diligent maintenance.
Shoot, why worry about communicating with engineers worldwide via the Internet, when you don’t even talk with the experts in your own plant on a regular basis?
Besides seeking help with familiar problems, it’s also vital to talk to the guy in the next office or cubicle because the devil you don’t know does show up sometimes, too. “One day, I was working on a machine, and a train came right through the wall and hit it,” says Scott Morse, an automation specialist at Brookline Services, a system integrator in Dayton, Ohio. “It’s important to deal with known problems quickly because every day some new and unanticipated ones are going to crop up.”
With all the e-mail, videoconferencing, Internet and other remote communications tools available, the technical side of remote collaboration is pretty much solved, according to Randy Kondor, Matrikon’s marketing vice president. “The problem that isn’t solved is the people issue and the fact that many folks won’t collaborate even of they have the tools. Even the behaviors of engineers of different ages are extremely different. Older engineers get to the office, get some coffee, shake hands and talk with their colleagues. Younger engineers may be more comfortable with new technologies, but the first they do when they arrive for the day is check their e-mail, rather than talk to their colleagues. We see this happen all the time.”
Kondor adds that older engineers often have a big problem with remote collaboration via electronic media. “They’ll use e-mail, but to set up in-person meetings. They seem to need that face-to-face interaction, or they don’t consider that the meeting really happened,” says Kondor.
However, intergenerational conflicts aren’t the only ones inhibiting collaboration. Differences in education, job descriptions, departmental assignments and temperament also cause squabbles and an unwillingness to cooperate. Who isn’t familiar with infighting between IT and plant-floor engineering staffs? Finally, ever-mounting workloads and information overload may also cause people to shrink from otherwise useful collaboration.
“Trying to collaborate creates numerous arguments and eventually compromises, but doing it face-to-face means people involved can go out for a beer at the end of the day and be civil when they start work again,” adds Kondor. “Adding distance to the mix just makes this whole process harder.”
Watch Your Language
Mixed into this grab bag of human foibles is the fact that, despite recent technical advances, many process measurement and control technologies retain surprising levels of inaccuracy. For example, a pipeline flowmeter may be 99.9% accurate, but a daily flow of 400,000 gallons can quickly add up to a lot of lost fuel and revenue, adds Kondor.
“A lot of end users and engineers come to me and don’t know what they want because they have so many different definitions about basic things, such as what constitutes a made part, which then defines how many were made,” says Morse. “A classic example happened during the Gold Rush when a large shipment of gold arrived in Philadelphia about 5% lighter than when it left California. Investigators first thought some gold had been stolen, but eventually found that spring scales used to weigh the gold registered differently due to the two cities’ differing elevations.”
Morse adds that one of his Fortune 500 clients years ago was welding auto parts, but was experiencing frequent stoppages caused by the wire in its MIG welders. The question was how often was this happening? However, this was impossible to determine because some operators reported a fault only when the wire was distorted, and they couldn’t move the material smoothly through the machine, while others also reported a fault when the spool ran out of wire, and a third group reported a fault when wire burned onto the material.