Process Automation Hall of Fame: Cast a Giant Shadow

Three Men Whose Careers Changed the Automation Industry and the World

By Walt Boyes

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February 2012 CoverEvery year, the members of the Process Automation Hall of Fame nominate and vote to induct the new class. This is the Class of 2012 and, as in all of the previous years, these people should be household names. Sadly, they aren't, except to automation professionals, so it falls to us to honor them here.

The 2012 Process Automation Hall of Fame Award Banquet will be part of the ATPM2012  (Automation Technology in Process Manufacturing) conference that will be held May 21-23 in the Woodlands, Texas. The banquet is on Monday, May 21. ATPM2012 was formerly called the WBF North American Conference and has expanded its format and focus substantially. Interested attendees can find more about ATPM2012 at www.atpm2012.org.

This year, the members of the Hall have inducted three very interesting characters. There are two design engineers and wireless gurus. And there's an accountant (and a story behind that!) The inductees this year are Mark Nixon, Thomas Phinney and Vernon Heath.

The Game-Changer: Mark Nixon

Mark Nixon is director of research for Emerson Process Management. He lives in Austin, Texas, and has two sons (twins) and two stepsons. "Last year was very happy for me," he said, "My twin sons both entered university and are both studying engineering."

Nixon talks about his upbringing. "I kind of grew up around parts of the industry," he says. "I grew up in northern Ontario, which has a lot of mining, timber, and pulp and paper."

"I grew up on a dairy farm in northern Ontario," he continues. "My father died in a farm accident when I was 15. My brother and I, along with our brother-in-law, ran the farm for a few years. After we sold the farm, I attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario. For my internships during university, I worked four months in the oil and gas fields in Alberta, four months for a pulp and paper company in northern Ontario, eight months for Ontario Hydro, and eight months doing design work for Atomic Energy in Canada. By the time I graduated I was very focused on control companies."

"I graduated in 1982," he says, "and started my career with Fisher Controls. I spent considerable time in the field at various pulp and paper mills, plastics plants, tobacco factories, chemical plants and tar sands projects. From 1995 through 2005, I was lead architect for Delta V, and in 1998, I transferred to Austin, Texas."

In 2006, he joined the wireless team at Emerson Process Management, where he took "an active role in the development of WirelessHART and IEC62591," which is the international standard version of WirelessHART.
Currently, he says, his research "includes control, data analytics, wireless, low power, virtualization, operator interfaces and advanced graphics."

If that isn't enough, he also is currently active in the Center for Operator Performance (www.operatorperformance.org), WirelessHART, ISA88, the Fieldbus Foundation and ISA101.

Nixon believes that he's made two major contributions to the automation profession. "The first is my role in helping shape DeltaV and PlantWeb into what they are today. We started research on DeltaV in 1991, and over a four-year period, we explored various software, hardware and user technologies. We commissioned an extensive study across several plants, gathering considerable data that in the end helped focus our efforts in developing DeltaV."

In 1995, he continues, "the original team of seven was expanded to seventeen, and we were moved off-site to work in a skunk-works environment. For two years, the team, which began growing quickly after the first year, worked away in isolation. In January 1996, we started field trials at 10 sites, and in 1997, we released our first version. I stayed on as the lead architect for a 10-year period."

"My second major contribution was in wireless," Nixon says. "My path toward wireless actually started about two years before I got involved with WirelessHART. During the initial two-year period, I worked on various prototypes that were installed and set up in oil fields around Lockhart, Texas. This project also ran mostly as a skunk works with much of the time spent on weekends and evenings in the oil fields."

He continues, "My family spent New Year's Day in 2005 with me at an oil well, while we set up and commissioned equipment. In 2006, I was invited to join the WirelessHART spec team and, as should be expected, jumped on this opportunity to move the industry forward."

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