The Education of the 21st-Century Process Automation

The Plant of 2025 Is Going to Require a Different Kind of Operator and Engineer. Are Schools and Companies Up for the Challenge?

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By Nancy Bartels, Managing Editor

Sometimes when you listen to the veterans talk about training young engineers, you get the impression that future process-plant operators and automation engineers will be three-headed aliens. “They’re sure not like we were,” say the old guys. “They process information differently; they get all their information from Google; they want everything to work like PlayStation 3; they’re all about Wikis, Twitter and texting. How’re ya gonna keep ‘em down in the control room after they’ve played on a Wii?”

This time, it’s not just the familiar, inevitable shouting over the generational divide. Process plant jobs and the way they’re done are changing. The young folks coming up to do them also are learning and working differently, and the schools that train them and the companies that hire them will have to keep up.

A Different Place

Our June story, “Process Plant 2025,” outlined some of the changes coming to process plants—everything from wearable HMIs to automatic “noses” that can suss out changes in processes via “smell.” Other new aspects of the plant environment include the increasing automation of basic processes and an ever-increasing torrent of data, including automatic diagnostics and performance monitoring data, that will have to be turned into usable information on the fly.

Professor Venkat Venkatasubramanian, director of the Laboratory for Intelligent Process Systems (LIPS) at Purdue University, says to expect “much, much faster machines. Quite possibly parallel computers will begin to be used…Networking is going to explode. Wireless sensors, such as RFIDs, are coming out of the woodwork. [There is] also tremendous power in communication technologies. What this means is, because of the processing power and technologies, you can get data from anywhere from the individual pump out into the supply chain.”

The downside of all this power and data accessibility is that, for the individual operator or engineer, it will be like “drinking from a fire hose,” he says. “Having all kinds of data is not necessarily good news. What we really want is not just raw data, but information. Beyond that, you also want to know why things are happening, i.e, knowledge and understanding—and getting that is not easy. It’s true that the kids coming out today are much more comfortable with technology, but that alone is not going to solve all these problems. We have to give them the tools to make real-time decisions. What they need is knowledge.”

And, if that fire-hose stream of data weren’t enough, the globalization of the workforce means more work and information exchange will be done remotely. Some operators and engineers will control multiple sites from a single control room, which will require workers with a more global view of operations and an understanding of how their daily tasks fit into the bigger company picture.

“Twenty years ago you could be a specialist in a particular segment. Today that has changed completely,” says Vikas Dhole, vice president of product management at automation software vendor AspenTech. “Now [engineers] are expected to know not just design, but operations, project management and economics. Employers are expecting more diversity, flexibility and multitasking ability.”

Bryant Dyer, process technology instructor at Lee College, says, “The role of the process technician has to change. As the control systems have gotten better, the operators have gotten closer to the engineering level of their work. [We are going to see] a much more sophisticated, computer-savvy technician who is maximizing efficiency. Technicians need to understand how important it is to minimize costs, maximize ability to produce product and make it better than anybody else. That’s their job now, and it will become more this way.”

Companies are going to “expect people to be able to understand the bigger picture—how what they do is related to the company’s business priorities,” says George Buckbee, vice president for product development at ExperTune.

Future process plant workers also can expect the mantra, “do more with less,” to drive operations with increasing intensity. It’s not going to be just a response to a global economy in which efficiency here has to offset lower labor costs in other places. Fewer operators and engineers will be around to do the jobs—not just because companies can’t or won’t pay for them, but because they just aren’t in the job pipeline to be hired at any price. 

The generation of engineers reaching retirement age now, coupled with a boom in process industries around the world is making for a real shortage of trained personnel and is leaving the schools scrambling to turn out more as quickly as possible.

Andy Van Der Veen, chairman of the instrumentation program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), says, “We’re increasing the number of seats [for students] by 33%, but we still get about three applications for every seat, and they can all get jobs. It’s like that across the board.”

A Different Breed

But providing enough operators and engineers with new skill sets isn’t the only challenge. Schools and companies also are faced with a different kind of student.  

We sense this change watching our own kids. They multi-task, learn video games by diving in and making mistakes, and develop entire networks of relationships via computer. We sense their shorter attention spans and their impatience with classic learning techniques such as reading the textbook.

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