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."

He Changed the World: Tom Phinney

"My father was a manufacturer's representative for Interdata (one of the first manufacturers of computers used for process control –ed.) in the mid 1960s. I went to inspect their plant, I believe, while I was in graduate school, and then returned and started programming a simple (by today's standards) process monitoring and data analysis application," says Tom Phinney, who retired from Honeywell Process Solutions, but not from the automation profession, a few years ago.

He goes on, "In 1971 the Advanced Computer Development Group of GE in Phoenix, for which I was working, was transferred to Billerica, Mass., as part of the sale of GE Information Systems to Honeywell Information Systems. I then was recruited to GE Process Computer, to which I transferred as a systems architect, because I wanted to remain in Phoenix.

"At GE Process, I continued to work on new computer architectures, but also designed early route-optimizing software for oil movements and participated in various special projects. Later, after Honeywell bought the GE process operation, I had occasional special projects where I was the automation system architect and software implementer."

About himself, Phinney says, "I'm a mathematician by training, with a lifelong love of music (primarily J.S. Bach and other baroque music). As an adult I took up martial arts, mostly aikido, and then ballet. This resulted in me performing in minor roles on all the major stages in Phoenix of that time.

"I was married when I was in graduate school, and soon had a son. Like many, I ended up with a divorce rather than a PhD. More recently, I have been with the same woman for over 35 years, and I have been head of the board of trustees for a church, secretary of a number of Phoenix-area non-profits, and a significant supporter of early music programs and education at Arizona State University, for which I have commissioned and contributed two clavichords to early music pedagogy and performance."

Phinney continues, "We spend our summers on the central Oregon coast where I have a house (courtesy of the sale in 1989 of Concord Data Systems, which I founded), and we attend every performance of the 18-day Oregon Bach Festival (OBF) in Eugene each summer. We are substantial contributors to OBF, including endowing the OBF keyboard chair. My own musical interest is in early keyboards, primarily clavichords, and I own two of them.

"I have a son, a daughter-in-law from Canada, and two young granddaughters who live in Portland, Ore. My granddaughters and I all study Chinese—they in immersion programs in school. Even though we are all Caucasians, this is to better equip us for careers in the 21st century.

"I got co-opted," Phinney says of his later career, "into the IEEE 802 LAN standards process because I volunteered to produce a draft specification for a peer variant of HTLC, which went on to become IEEE 802.2 (This was at the very beginnings of Ethernet –ed.). This led me to be a co-founder of Concord Data Systems and Concord Communications, which was basing part of its business model on LAN products for industrial communications networks. I was involved in IEEE 802.4, for which I was co-editor. And, in turn, work in the 802.4 committee on industrial wireless led to the formation of IEEE 802.11 WiFi, for which I co-wrote the project authorization, and was inadvertently the final editor of the first version of that standard. There was other work in IEEE 802 on CATV-based and security aspects of LANs.

"After we closed the Phoenix Concord office, my old manager at Honeywell approached me about short-term consulting, which then led to an offer of reemployment with an immediate transfer to the Brussels office of Honeywell-Europe. I took the offer since my family needs were to live in or near western Germany at that time. While in Europe, I worked primarily with Shell International at den Haag [The Hague], and participated in the European MAP [Manufacturing Automation Protocol] Users Group.

"When that European assignment ended, I returned to Honeywell's Phoenix offices where I started work on ISA's SP50 fieldbus standards committee. That, in turn, led to the Ronan/Honeywell/Emerson FieldChipS project and then to my role as U.S. Technical Advisor to ANSI [American National Standards Institute] for IEC SC65C and as convenor of the IEC 61158 set of fieldbus standards.

"In 2001, I was recruited to work for Honeywell's central research labs in Minneapolis, although I continued to live and work in Phoenix. That transfer occurred on April Fool's Day 2001, and almost immediately I began work on projects related to U.S. security issues, much of which were federally funded. That accelerated after 9/11, and I continued with that work until I retired at the end of July in 2007.

"My work on fieldbus design standards segued naturally to work on Honeywell's industrial wireless product design, which later extended to ISA100.11a wireless and to WirelesssHART. My long background in writing standards and my security and crypto background—remember, I was initially a mathematician, and many of my classmates ended up at NSA [U.S. National Security Administration] during the 1960s—led naturally to my focus on the cybersecurity issues of wireless automation networks."

Phinney believes that one of his most important contributions was the formation of IEEE 802.11, and the related work in IEEE 802.4, which led to the genesis of WiFi. "Nothing else has had such an extensive influence on modern life as non-proprietary, spread- spectrum wireless LANs, whether 802.11 or the more recent 802.15 and 802.16 variants."

And Certainly Not Least, the Business Leader: Vern Heath

"I was born Feb. 1, 1929, in McGregor, Minnesota. My parents were farmers in sandy fields that were not the best soil," Vern Heath reports. "I was the oldest of eight. When I was eight years old, I became a polio patient. I spent a lot of time in hospitals, and I’ve used crutches much of my life. I'm not glad I had polio, but I'm certain I would never have reached my achievement levels if I had not had polio. I had to work harder."

"I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1950. I had excellent teachers who gave me a strong foundation in math, marketing, and the humanities, and wise advisors who steered me into financial accounting."

In 1956, Frank Werner, who worked with Heath at the university's Rosemount Aeronautical Laboratory, invited Heath—because of his business training—to join him and Bob Keppel in a new venture. For the first two years they continued to work their regular jobs but spent evenings and weekends in the converted chicken hatchery that initially housed Rosemount Engineering Company.

The rest, as they say, is history, but Heath is reluctant to take credit for the company's success. "I strongly dislike using 'I.' I can very strongly say ‘I' alone would not have reached the success our company made. We had and have an outstanding group of people with a culture that drives for excellence."

Rosemount grew and grew, and at first specialized in aerospace instrumentation, such as the compensated pitot-static tube, the first real modern temperature transmitter, and a lot of the instrumentation that went into even the space suits and the space craft of the Apollo moon missions.
"We had to have high quality," Heath remembers, "so men did not die on the moon."

"My great contributions were to ensure the overall financial resources to support the growth of our business, plus staffing our business functions with talented people," Heath notes modestly. In fact, as he succeeded Werner as CEO in 1968, he shepherded Rosemount into a new role as the world's leading manufacturer of pressure and temperature instrumentation for industrial processes.  The original aerospace business continued to grow and prosper, but Heath’s team recognized it could have an even stronger future as part of a company focused on that market and in 1993 they sold it to BFGoodrich Aerospace.

Part of Rosemount's strategy for the process control market was to leapfrog existing electromechanical technology and move straight into solid-state electronics – an effort that led to the wildly popular 1151 DP transmitter. 

Rosemount was also among the first in the industry to open offices and factories around the world to serve a growing list of multinational customers.  "I led a group to China in 1978, and many more trips followed as we built relationships -- including with the premier," recalls Heath.  "But even before that, a big part of our business was international."

In 1976, to stave off acquisition attempts by companies he did not favor, Heath negotiated the sale of Rosemount to Emerson Electric.  Emerson’s chairman at the time, Chuck Knight, agreed to the deal only if Heath would stay and run the resulting division – which formed the cornerstone of today's Emerson Process Management. In 1985 he was inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame.

In 1994, Heath retired after 38 years with Rosemount, including 18 as part of Emerson. "It was time to leave, with a healthy relationship with Emerson and a fine group of leaders to take Rosemount forward."

A View into the Future

"Several technologies have made significant enough advancement to impact our industry," Mark Nixon says about the future. "One of these advancements is in the area of user interface technology. Another area that is already starting to have an impact is the whole field of data analytics. The third area is smart phones and tablets. There are really several aspects of these devices that are important—general acceptance of these devices in the market, the user interface style and the portability of the devices."

Phinney believes that the "Internet of Things" will lead to the adoption of industrially robust networking in device-to-device communications. "The Chinese are already demonstrating this in their labs at CQUPT in Chongqing," he says. The other trend he thinks is important is "distributed intelligence: local data reduction and processing, which will be more extensive than Foundation fieldbus control loops, and local self-recalibration and self-assessment to the extent possible while in normal operation."

Phinney continues, "STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] education and careers that contribute positively to society need to be attractive. We should have the modern equivalent of the 1960s ‘rocket scientists' as heroes, rather than the entertainment and sports figures and Wall Street get-rich-quick types that so many young people aspire to be. Given the lousy education of most U.S. teenagers, it isn't surprising that most kids aspire to what they see on TV."

Nixon says, "My first step has been to get my sons and their friends interested in engineering. If we create opportunities for them to experience the automation industry, they may be willing to make a long-term career commitment."

Heath recommends that young engineers, "Find organizations that have a high probability to continue to grow by serving the customer better than any competitor," and join them.

"Good enough for today is not good enough for tomorrow. Never let 100% today stay good enough forever. That was our basic philosophy. Continuous improvement is a way of life," he adds.

Phinney's advice to young people is to "get a broad, solid education, including another language (preferably a useful one), so that you realize that there is more than one way to see the world. Then follow your bliss. If you are not happy in your work, with a sense of productive contribution to the world, find something else to do. Expect to educate yourself continuously throughout your life. Learn critical thinking. Follow your bliss."

Phinney concludes, "You've made it this far. The best is yet to come. But hang onto your seats because the rate of change will continue to increase throughout your life. It's an exponential curve, which means that none of us can really be prepared for it. Give up the temptation to try to hold onto the past, and accept and explore the new, whether in culture, technology or anywhere else. As the character S.R. Hadden said in the movie Contact, 'Want to take a ride?' What choice do you have?"

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