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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But there is a problem inherent in the learning through simulation scenario. “Do you want to fly with a pilot that only has experience on a simulator?” asked Cockrell.

And there’s also the concern that the Google-and-videogame generation’s training may end up being a mile wide and an inch deep, and that the students can’t cope with the frustration of the really difficult problem whose answer is not on Google.

“I’m concerned about their impatience,” says NAIT’s Van der Veen. “That’s something they have to learn. Troubleshooting requires that skill set. They get frustrated with that.”

It is a challenge that will have to be met in the classroom—whether it’s a physical or a virtual one. “If we are going to fix this problem, we have to do it in our schools and universities. We have to focus on  deeper thinking and understanding, the ability to work with sophisticated informatics environments and analyze vast and varied data and information to make the right decisions,” says Venkatasubramanian.

So Much to Learn; So Little Time

This brings us to an old educational struggle that advancing technology has made only more complicated: So much to learn, so little time.

Students may need to stay in school longer, says LIPS’ Venkatasubramanian. “It might take five or six years. Our curriculum is jam-packed as it is. What do we take out? Students will routinely pursue master’s level degree programs where they receive such specialized education and training. One can already see emergence of such options, such as the information systems degree programs at various universities.”

Harking back to the pilot analogy, he adds, “Purdue has a program in aeronautical engineering. Students graduate in four years. They know how planes fly, but they can’t fly a plane. To be pilots they have to go through additional training. A similar investment is going to have to be made to create ‘plant pilots.’”

Even at schools such as NAIT and Lee College that specialize in two- and three-year programs for operators, it’s a struggle to get in all the required or desired material. “We have enough material that our two-year program could be a three-year program,” says NAIT’s Van der Veen. “We’d like to do more on databases, how they work, how you search them efficiently, and more on the new communications standards. This summer one of the things we’ve been working on is integrating wireless standards into the program. How do you integrate that into the program?”

And Van der Veen’s short list doesn’t include training in “soft” skills, such as project management, economics, leadership, etc.—all those disciplines that give operators or process engineers of the future that broader perspective companies say they will need.  

But with the cost of a single year of college running well into five figures, convincing students to add another year or two to their training is a tough sell. Furthermore, the scarcity of process operators and engineers is creating a “pro sports” phenomenon—leaving school early to enter the pros.

Dyer says, “There was a strong trend of wanting to hire people who had completed programs, but that’s being short-circuited. Companies still would prefer that people finish, but they are reaching in and taking them early on.”

Back to the Future

Ironically, this confluence of trends may resurrect some of the casualties of the cost-cutting orgies of the last decades—the internship and the in-house training program.

In spite of the fact that such programs are costly, “Ultimately, we’re seeing a bigger interest in internship programs,” says Dyer. “Several companies have asked us to set these up. It gives them a chance to look at an individual to decide if they want to hire particular students.”

Regardless of the price, companies are going to have to step up and take some control over parts of training. “The natural thing is for community colleges to take over the basic training [for operators], but when you go to a facility, they have a specific process. That training has to take place inside the company. That can’t be taught at the college or university. That’s still going to take months or years, and companies have to maintain that part of the operation,” says Dyer.

Vendors also have a role to play here. Beyond the ubiquitous user-group meeting with its information sessions, working groups and tutorials, some process automation vendors offer more customized training.

National Instruments’ play for the youngest engineers and its alliance with Lego toys and the First Robotics program is perhaps the most media-genic example, but other vendors are also doing their bit to educate the young engineers and operators. AspenTech, for example, supplies colleges and universities with software and teaching materials for their undergraduate curricula. The company also has a collection of teaching modules, web-based courses and other online materials that companies can use to train workers.

“We deal with a lot of companies who come to us for customized versions of ExperTune training courses,” says Buckbee. “We also do partnerships with local community colleges and some corporations.”

Venkatasubramanian sees another possibility if home-grown partnerships between vendors, schools and individual companies can’t fill the gap—another business opportunity. “Somebody’s going to do this,” he says. “New educational niche markets will open up. There will be new independent institutions and university/business partnerships emerging, possibly in India or China. It’s an important business opportunity.” 

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