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Another key manpower issue is that the ChE curriculum has broadened in recent years to include more material in new areas such as materials and biotechnology. Consequently, many new ChE faculty members have been hired in recent years who are not engineers. As a result, traditional ChE areas such as process control are under pressure and tend to be viewed less favorably in academia than they were a decade or two earlier.

Entering the field of automation now

Definitely, process automation continues to be a challenging and rewarding field; but the limited financial support available for graduate work in this area is a key limitation. Because process control is not a favorite area for federal funding agencies, the financial support for academic research will largely be due to mission-oriented research in “frontier areas,” and to research projects sponsored by one or more companies.


Bill Hawkins: The Man with “the knack”

How I fell into process automation

I was born with “the knack,” as Scott Adams puts it, and developed electrical and mechanical skills. Father worked for Foxboro from 1950 to 1977. He asked me to help him with the HVAC drawings for a quote on a SAGE center. I thought that was interesting, but space ships were more interesting. Fortunately, I did not have the grades from MIT to be accepted by NASA in 1960, so my father asked the chief instrument engineer at Hercules if there were any openings. I started at a Hercules blasting cap plant in upstate New York designing test instrumentation for commercial and small military explosive devices. I loved being able to design equipment to requirements and see the process through to use of the design.

I was transferred to Covington, Va., in 1965 where the equipment was very large scale. Again, the work was fascinating, and it led me to lunch with General Curtis LeMay in 1968, as the vice president of an equipment vendor. But my wife was not enjoying life, so we transferred to Home Office Engineering in Wilmington, Del.. My first field trip was to a plant that had a 60,000 SCFM compressor for a nitric acid process that was surging on a process trip. First we found an expansion sleeve plugging the vent silencer, using a big crane to get it down. Then we found the cause of the trips in a junction box under the stairs that had no cover, so nitric acid that formed in moisture rotted the connector. I was hooked, and loved the work.

My boss retired, and the new guy didn’t see any need for developing our own instruments. Hercules was looking at computer control systems in 1979 and happened to be courted by the Rosemount Diogenes sales rep. I asked if they had any openings, after being impressed by the system, and started work in Minneapolis in January of 1980 as system engineering manager. I wasn’t happy managing, but the next generation system project was just beginning. I became the control architect, with my 20 years of user experience. The RS3 system meant more to me than any space ship. We had a good run until Emerson acquired Fisher Controls. Our control philosophies were poles apart—online distributed configuration versus all configuration in a single relational database. We could not merge, so RS3 went under.

I started HLQ in July 1999, when the RS3 plant was sold and its people scattered to the winds. Fourteen of 165 people accepted transfers to Texas. I wasn’t one of them, because the frigid winters kill every form of cockroach (but not mosquitoes). I found work in fieldbus through friends, and made some satisfying contributions.

Looking back on my career

A person with a knack for engineering needs a way to build satisfying things, usually with other people’s money. I was disappointed to not be able to build space ships, but process control really stretched my talents for electrical, electronic and mechanical engineering.

I was beginning to see repetition in the work at Hercules when I went to Rosemount, but I soon saw the variety in tackling problems from many different plants in many different countries. I was looking forward to improving RS3 in 1988 when the pending Fisher merger dried up the money for development. Fortunately, there were greater opportunities in ISA standards committees SP-50 and SP-88, where I could apply my experience to create new designs. In hindsight, standards committees offer the opportunity to associate with intelligent and lively people, but there is not the freedom to innovate that there can be in a company. Many hours are spent educating people that haven’t caught up, and when they do, more hours are spent in compromise. It takes the occasional bonding dinner to heal some of the compromise wounds.

It looks like I am a late bloomer, or as the Pennsylvania Dutch say, “Too soon old, too late smart.” But I have gone from being a shy engineer much better with things than people to someone more comfortable with people (engineers, not politicians). Writing a book was hard, but got easier as it came together.

Overall, there are things in my life that I’d change, but my career isn’t one of them.

Trends I see for the future of automation

There are people better qualified for future trend watching than this old man. There are some important historical trends, though.

The rise of the businessman focused on the bottom line has swung the social pendulum from keeping process engineering skills and knowledge in-house as valid company assets to outsourcing. The businessmen will run their course, and the pendulum will swing back to smaller, more agile companies with proprietary knowledge and loyal employees, if it swings back in time to avoid collapse.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote [ital] Player Piano [ital]  in 1951, which followed a young automation engineer as he worked himself out of a job—when it’s all automated, engineers are no longer required. This has not happened 57 years later. The technology underlying automation keeps improving, making older efforts obsolete. The computer has accelerated this process, although some say it has encumbered it with unnecessary complexity. No problem—complexity is job security.

The growth of technology has made specialization necessary. Our three-pound brains can’t hold it all, so we have the problems of coordinating specialists. Communications become essential so that nothing serious is overlooked in the course of managing a project. The risk becomes that a project will not have a specialist that it needs, because no one recognizes the need for that specialty.

Getting new people into automation

The efforts of Dean Kamen’s FIRST Robotics organization to connect budding engineers in high school with experienced engineers are impressive. At the beginning of each year, high school teams and their mentors receive the details of the year’s competition game. The teams have just six weeks to design and build a 120-pound robot that could win the game. Everything is done to give everyone an equal chance and to insure cooperation among the teams, so that it doesn’t become the “win at any cost” scene at most commercial sporting events.

The value of teaming a young person with a mentor is beyond my capability to describe. Students need to work on real problems controlling significant energies. Unfortunately, most of the places where such experience could be gained are off limits either because they are secret or the safety risks are too high. Then again, I don’t know of any high schools with process control labs. But I think that a suitable student exposed to process control could get hooked on the ability to control great power.

Read February's 2008 cover story, Process Automation Hall of Fame.

Also,
listen to Walt Boyes talking to the 2008 inductees to the Process Automation Hall of Fame.
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