By Paul Miller
Todays process control operators, technicians and engineers are better educated than at any time in the history of the industry. However, the technology being applied in todays process plants is becoming increasingly more sophisticated and complex, creating a knowledge gap.
The recent proliferation of fieldbus technology in new process installations has certainly contributed to this gap. To show you what we mean, we took a look at training for Foundation fieldbus. Foundation fieldbusand other fieldbus protocols require a whole new way of approaching the commissioning and maintaining of field devices, arranging process control loops and using all the data you can now extract from your field instrumentation.
According to John Pittman, former president and CEO of the Fieldbus Foundation, Austin, Texas), We need better educated and better trained process engineers and operators than we have today. Foundation fieldbus puts all kind of information into the operators hands that weve never had before. This provides opportunities and challenges.
Figure 1. Tex Woodall, Jessica Winans and David Aleman take advantage of some of the hands-on training resources at the Lee College Fieldbus Center.
Generic vs. Vendor-Specific Fieldbus Training
To help meet the need for fieldbus-specific training, several technical institutions offer Fieldbus Foundation-certified courses in fieldbus technology. Generic (non-vendor-specific) process fieldbus training is also available from commercial consulting and training companies, such as BusCorp and Fieldbus Inc..
Most major automation vendors also offer vendor-specifi courses in the application of fieldbus technology. John Rezabek, a controls specialist at ISP Corporations plant in Lima, Ohio, current chair of the Fieldbus Foundations End User Advisory Council and the author of Controls monthly column, On the Bus, commented, Fieldbus Foundation emphasizes the need for specialized training and has a few certified providers. While many users are still making up their minds, those who have a wide variety of installed host systems and field devices prefer these providers to the understandably more biased vendor-provided fieldbus training.
Educators Speak Out
Chuck Carter, director of the fieldbus training center at Lee College, sees a large knowledge and skills gap relative to implementing fieldbus. Prior knowledge and attempting to adapt fieldbus to fit a traditional model for instrumentation and control just does not work. Many of the methods and practices applied to traditional I&C systems do work, but the learner must adopt new methods that often require unlearning established practices. I also see some attempts to fit fieldbus along traditional work lines. People can argue this as much as they want, but I am certain that those lines will not adequately work for fieldbus. All levels must learn how to work much more closely with each other.
Data management skills clearly play a strong role in student success. Many have excellent experiences in working with systems that call for a linear approach in troubleshooting. I believe fieldbus calls for a much more holistic approach in regard to design, troubleshooting and even operations. In this regard, fieldbus is not technically difficult. It is, however, different enough that some of todays workers may not be able to adapt to working with large datasets or with the highly interactive environment. They likewise may not survive the change.
According to Mark Skovmose, an instructor at Southern Alberta Institute of Technologys (SAIT) MacPhail School of Energy, A lack of fieldbus knowledge sometimes leads to a DCS philosophy being applied to fieldbus. But, fieldbus is not simply DCS on a digital bus and requires new knowledge.
Some End-User Perspectives
Joe Moody, an instrument/electrical technician at GB Bioscience in Houston, recently completed a fieldbus course at Lee College, Baytown, Texas to complete the requirements for his Instrument Technologies degree. Just as pneumatic control gave way to DCS control, it appears DCS control is giving way to fieldbus control. I/E technicians are often the first to respond when there is a problem with the process. The better understanding I have of not only the field instruments, but also the tools available within the fieldbus system, the more efficiently I can resolve such matters.
The need to stay competitive in the job market was a real driver for me. Employers are looking for technicians with diversified portfolios. Many sites along the Houston ship channel are running old pneumatic loops along side or within DCS-controlled systems. Now fieldbus systems are going in. The ability to work within all of these systems certainly creates opportunities.
Jean-Francois Jobdon, a controls engineer-in-training at Nexen, the Canadian global energy company, is working with the Colt Engineering team on the Long Lake Project in Calgary, Alberta. Jobdon recently completed all three Foundation fieldbus courses offered at SAIT. The Long Lake project uses mostly Foundation fieldbus devices, and Jobdon wanted a better understanding of how the technology works.
The Automation Vendors View
Foundation fieldbus knowledge and skills are important to engineers that design and understand control strategy; they are also essential for technicians that support operations, said Mark Dimmitt, curriculum development manager at Emerson Process Management. However, a knowledge and skills gap has resulted between the expertise of engineers that are receiving the training and operations technicians, who are often overlooked. As a result, technicians develop some level of fear and distrust. Yet, we know that Foundation fieldbus technology is not difficult. Its simply different than the traditional 4 to 20 technology. Time and again, we see technicians warm to the new technology once they have some basic training.