"Esso was very good at giving basic control training to its engineers," Wilkins says, "and then throwing them in at the deep end—and boy, did I learn a lot quickly." Like Berra, Wilkins spent lots of time working on every type of process unit. Then he was sent to Esso's additives plant called Paramins, and this changed his life. He was sent there to learn the ins and outs of batch control.
"It was seen as ‘relegation' by the continuous control ‘elite,' " Wilkins remembers, "but boy, did I have some fun there."
Wilkins took his new found batch expertise on the road, teaching process automation for KBC Process Automation's (now Honeywell Process Solutions) batch group for the next three years. He spent 18 months working on a huge batch project for Shell with Foxboro NL, the Dutch subsidiary of Foxboro (www.foxboro.com), and while there he learned about Easybatch, a Foxboro product far ahead of its time that used subroutines to control operations in the way ISA-88 later used phases. Moving to Honeywell (http://hpsweb.honeywell.com), he became involved in creating Modular Batch Automation, which was a forerunner to ISA-88.
"During this period, I became a Honeywell Fellow—a position bestowed on very few people in their organization," Wilkins said. "In 1993, I was transferred to Honeywell's EU HQ in Brussels to head a European Batch Center, and while in this position, I attended the inaugural World Batch Forum "Meeting of the Minds" held in Phoenix in mid-1994, which was another event that would eventually be life-changing."
After a period of time as a global consultant for Honeywell, a short engagement at SimSci just before its acquisition by Siebe, and a stint with his own consulting company, Wilkins bumped into Tom Fisher at the 2000 WBF North American Conference. "Tom Fisher was really the father of ISA-88 and revered in the batch community. I had never met him but he said, ‘so you are Maurice Wilkins! I have read several of your papers on modular batch automation!' It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Following the conference, Tom asked me to join the WBF board, where I eventually became chairman."
Wilkins cycled back to the end-user side of things next, with a position at Millennium Specialty Chemicals (now part of LyondellBasell, www.lyondellbasell.com) in Jacksonville, Fla. At the same time, he served as WBF chairman from 2004 to 2009. "I am still the longest-serving chairman," he said, "having seen the organization get to the brink of extinction, and then with the help of a great board of directors, pull it back to viability once more."
In 2006, "consulting came calling again," and Wilkins joined ARC Advisory Group (www.arcweb.com) as vice president of consulting services. He had always wanted to have an influential position at a DCS vendor, and in 2008 such a position came up at Yokogawa. "I could not say no," Wilkins says. "I thoroughly enjoy working for Yokogawa and being an internal consultant for the organization."
In addition to his role at WBF as "Chairman Emeritus," Wilkins is also co-chair of ISA-101, the HMI standard committee, and he is a member of the Standards and Practices board. He is co-managing director of ISA-88 and ISA-95, and was instrumental in the formation of the ISA-106 standard committee for procedural automation. With ISA-88, the issues around the automation of batch processes had been addressed, but although ISA-88 could apply, it had not addressed purely procedural operations in continuous processes—start-ups, shutdowns and grade changes, for example. "So, along with Dave Emerson and Walt Boyes," Wilkins says, "I did some market research and found that there was a need for this standard, and we cajoled ISA into launching ISA-106 in April 2010."
Dr. Wilkins is married to Sara and lives in the Dallas suburb of Allen, Texas. "I have two daughters living in England, and three stepsons living in Belgium—and we also have two of the most adorable dogs in the world, both rescues," he said. "Sara and I love to run together, and we both enjoy traveling together and eating good food and drinking good wine."
More Thoughts from Our Masters of All the Tools
We know that there are fewer students choosing manufacturing (process or discrete) as a career, and even engineering and science career choices are down. What do you think we should do about this?
Maurice Wilkins: We HAVE to get younger people interested in the subject and convince them that automating huge industrial processes is "cool." I had a chat a couple of years ago with some younger relatives of mine and explained to them what I have done over my career, and they thought it was very interesting. But if you ask many of them what they want to do―they want to work with games and the Internet. "Older" people like me need to engage younger people and be given a platform to let them know just how much fun our profession can be. We also need support from the management of the industries we work in―to show the true value of automation to EVERY process operation these days.
John Berra: Engineering enrollment surged in my day because the Russians launched Sputnik and the United States realized it needed to get going technically. Kennedy announced the goal to put a man on the moon, and there was a huge push for students to go into engineering. There is no equivalent sense of urgency in the United States today. Engineering enrollment throughout the world, however is not ailing anywhere near as much—particularly in Asia. Overall, engineering enrollment follows a supply and demand cycle with a fairly long lag.
In my view, a more serious problem is that however many engineering students we have, very few of them choose process automation. This problem is global. I have often called automation engineering a noble profession. People who do this are the unsung heroes of their companies. No other engineering field requires more depth and breadth of understanding. Students don’t go into it today because it just does not have much visibility or sizzle. It is much more fun to hitch your wagon to the Google/Microsoft/Apple world or to the SAP/Oracle world. ISA was supposed to be one of the groups pushing for automation visibility, but that has not been very effective. Our industry has no one with the star power of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.