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We need to be doing much more to show both high school and grade school students that engineering is a good career. In colleges, we need to make those already focused on engineering see automation as a choice of engineering profession. The best way to do this would be for schools to teach automation as a stand-alone engineering discipline; or at a minimum a defined option in electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering. There are more people needed in automation than in fiber, paper, optical and ceramic engineering—each of which has an ABET- approved engineering program at one or more U.S. universities. A number of universities outside the U.S. teach automation engineering. Why so little emphasis in the U.S.? Lack of research funding and attention from industry is the usual answer. Schools lose money on each student and need research funding to offer new programs.
Of course, manufacturing in general—maintenance, operations, as well as engineering—needs a big boost as a career choice. In the U.S., two-year college programs in automation maintenance for both process and hybrid manufacturing cannot attract enough students to fill industry’s needs. In many schools, the average age of entering students in over 25, meaning that the students have tried different jobs, including possibly getting a B.A. degree, before they decide to go into manufacturing, where the starting salary is often over $60k.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I took an elective course in Fortran programming, one of few ChE students to do so during the early 1960s. I learned the joys and frustrations of having computer printout available only once per day, at the Athletic Department’s indoor practice stadium where the campus computer was located. But this early experience whetted my appetite for computer applications.
In 1964 I wrote a computer program to analyze data from a new process control experiment at Wisconsin that concerned an identification method called “pulse testing.” To my great surprise, a modification of my software was still being using for this process control experiment, 30 years later! This experience and the required process control course at Wisconsin convinced me that I wanted to obtain a PhD working in the area of process control. Leon Lapidus’ new textbook, [ital] Digital Computation for Chemical Engineers, [ital] and faculty recommendations motivated me to apply to Princeton. I very much enjoyed the Princeton PhD program and began a long friendship with another graduate student, Tom Edgar (U. of Texas at Austin). Tom and I have co-authored a widely used process control textbook (with Duncan Mellichamp) and have presented related short courses in the U.S. and abroad. Tom was deservedly elected to the Automation Hall of Fame in 2007.
After graduating from Princeton in 1969, I accepted a faculty position at the University of Alberta. I had been planning on an industrial career, but the opportunity to actually apply advanced control techniques to pilot plants (that were interfaced to an IBM 1800 computer) was too tempting to pass up. Another key factor in my decision was that Alberta had two faculty members in process control, and was interested in hiring a third. It was, and still is, very unusual for an academic ChE department to have three faculty members in the area of process automation. My Alberta colleagues, Grant Fisher and Reg Wood, were excellent mentors,
especially concerning the practical aspects of process control and automation.
I was very fortunate to receive my university education and start my professional career when the widespread use of computers and computer control was just getting started. Since the late 1960s, exciting and important developments have occurred in both process automation and control theory; it is evident that they have had a marked impact on industrial practice. “Veteran” readers of this magazine may recall that first generation of process control computers, as exemplified by the IBM 1800 and its TSX operating system. It had 32 KB RAM, a 1 MB hard drive with a random access time of 1 second. The RAM had two partitions, one for real-time applications and the other for background computations such as dynamic simulations. Clearly, the state-of-the-art in process automation has significantly advanced during the past 40 years!
Throughout my career, a key research objective has been to help bridge the acclaimed gap between control theory and industrial practice. In particular, I require my PhD students to do some experimental work as part of their PhD program. For most of my career, this experimental component has consisted of well-documented experimental applications of new automation techniques in academic settings. In recent years, the experimental studies have been conducted at industrial sites or at clinical medical facilities (e.g., glucose control strategies for type I diabetes).
By being involved with actual experimental and industrial applications, PhD students gain a better appreciation of the practical limitations and rewards of “advanced control methods.”
These types of research activities also tend to “build character.”
Dramatic developments in information technology and the internet continue to spawn related developments in process automation. New opportunities will continue to be generated in so-called “frontier areas” of chemical engineering (e.g., biotechnology, nanotechnology, the environment, and especially energy) In the U.S., the increased emphasis on product development, as opposed to process development, will result in challenging process control and automation problems.
While the potential for improved process automation is very high, a key issue is who are the people who will develop and use them? The ranks of automation and process control specialists has been reduced by two key factors: the retirements of the large number of specialists who were hired in the 1960s, and the downsizing of engineering personnel in U.S. plants and the outsourcing of development effort to foreign countries. The net result has been a reduction of engineers in the process industries who are able to develop, or even apply, new automation strategies. Thus, it is becoming more imperative that new automation products be both “bullet proof” and capable of being readily used by non-specialists.
ControlGlobal.com is exclusively dedicated to the global process automation market. We report on developing industry trends, illustrate successful industry applications, and update the basic skills and knowledge base that provide the profession's foundation.