By Jim Montague, executive Editor
So the other day, I was riding a shuttle bus from the Houston International Airport’s new rental car lair to one of its main terminals, when I heard a man across the aisle talking on his cell phone. I didn’t pay much attention at first, but I perked up when the fragments of the call I caught seemed to be saying something about getting a PLC programmed with the right software for installation somewhere soon. Now, I don’t hear much control and automation talk outside of work, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear it on an airport bus in Houston. However, I was intrigued by the coincidence, and so I buttonholed the caller and asked for a quick interview. And instead of calling security, he agreed to answer a few questions. Okay, so I’m still a nosy reporter.
Anyway, Vitreas Godbey, the man on the cell phone, is a self-employed electrical engineer from Waynesburg, Ky., who helps implement and service regenerative thermal oxidizers. These devices take contaminated air in process settings, clean it by heating it to 1,600 °F, and so recover it for use in chemical production applications and in the ever-multiplying number of U.S. ethanol plants. As you might expect, he’s been pretty busy lately.
In fact, Mr. Godbey reported that he used to start five or six applications per year, but is now starting about one per week. To keep up with his accelerated schedule, he now has about seven days to complete an oxydizer project, where he used to have about a month and a half. He says it took awhile to compress his schedule and prioritize the tasks for each project.
“A lot of increasing project speed has to do with improving communications,” said Godbey. “For instance, I was just calling a client in Kansas to find a PLC and a missing memory card. That is, Rockwell Automation sent the card, but we don’t know which PLC it’s in, and so I asked the field guys to look for it.
“In the past, I’d wait until I got there to check it. That might have delayed the job a couple of days. No big deal. Now it is a big deal. A few days ago, another guy asked me to do a smart terminal project, and we’ve had to talk three times just today to get it designed in.
“For most guys now, their life is their PC, and the cell phone is an overused tool too. I know we have to go with the flow, but it’s pretty stressful sometimes. I mean, I’m an electrical engineer who can program some pretty complex devices, but even though I’m on my cell phone so much, I still haven’t had enough time to learn how to use it correctly. In some ways, I don’t much like the way things are now.”
Godbey adds he’s trying to start up some clients’ systems from his home office. However, there are still technical obstacles, and he has to convince clients to allow this kind of service.
After finishing our conversation and hurrying to catch our flights, it occurred to me that Mr. Godbey has lots of company. I’ve lost count of the engineers and other folks I’ve interviewed who are all stretched close to breaking.
So, what’s to be done? Maybe make a to-do list, break up big jobs into little ones, evaluate what can be accomplished in a given time, period, prioritize tasks, seek assistance as needed, minimize distractions and let go of unessential items. Perhaps try to make yourself and your business more organized as Godbey did, possibly by using your plant-floor applications as a model. Many of the Control and Information System Integrators Association’s (CSIA, www.controlsys.org) guidelines and best practices for integrators can be used by other organizations, too. I recommend taking a few long, slow, Lamaze-style deep breaths, doing shoulder/neck rolls, torso twists, toe touch/calf stretches and walking at least 30 minutes per day.
Unfortunately, I’d bet all this stress has to be about as unhealthy as brie wrapped in bacon. I’d also bet that running around like a headless chicken isn’t actually good for efficiency or productivity, especially in the long term. It’s just good for short-sighted profit. Too bad no one has a spare moment to study the question.