By John Rezabek, Contributing Editor
How is your instrument and controls department populated? As many have noted, we don't have a lot of programs aiming to produce certified I&C professionals—whether we're speaking of certificates, two-year technical degrees or four-year degrees and above. And when I think of the best people with whom I've had the privilege to work, it's always interesting to learn how they became an "instrument" person.
If you're in a union environment, chances are there's a contract that dictated the process by which one becomes an instrument technician. Until recent years, many sites faced significant hurdles if they wanted to direct-hire from the outside. "Craft lines" and other strict role guidelines made it hard for persons with interest, aptitude, and/or talent to participate. But despite these somewhat arbitrary selection processes, instrument departments were known to produce a number of more motivated and capable individuals. When I think of who I'd pick for my all-star team, the majority came from a union environment.
The coming of microprocessor-based control systems created some new challenges and opportunities. There came a point where organizations determined engineers weren't the best fit for the routine "custodial" duties associated with their new DCS and PLC systems. Tasks like backups, minor upgrades, documentation and hardware maintenance (like changing filters, vacuuming and other preventive chores) were better suited to a technician. But few thought they could adequately train their entire shop in DCS maintenance, and also get everyone enough "practice" to keep their skills sharp. We also feared the after-hours, call-out roulette would either require hand-holding from engineers, or risk a fumble that would adversely impact operations. So we cherry-picked the instrument department for people who we thought could grow into the role of "DCS specialist." We drew a line at the marshalling cabinet, and decreed that "instrument" maintenance stopped there.
This arrangement worked fine as long as instrument maintenance consisted of routine and repetitive tasks such as rebuilding valves, blowing down taps, zeroing, calibration and replacement-in-kind. But microprocessor-based field devices not only made some of these tasks obsolete, but also have created a new realm of opportunities to exploit device intelligence. At the moment, companies still have the opportunity to stick to the "old ways," and man their instrument shop with minions who slog through the same ruts as 20 years ago. But there's a growing number of pioneering end users who are finding fruit—some low-hanging and some not so much. They have figured out how to mine the data available from all their intelligent devices.
But, there are numerous sites with sophisticated AMS systems and/or hardware, where the devices might as well be old 4-20 mA. Why are these systems gathering dust? Maybe what they lack is a competent and motivated shepherd, a champion and a custodian of AMS strategies that exploit the integrated device intelligence and infrastructure. We need to choose these people, and empower them in the same way we chose DCS specialists. To an ever-increasing extent, intelligent devices are integrated with the DCS now, to the point where you're likely to meet with frustration and aggravation if you insist on keeping them separate.
If your enterprise values stable, safe processes that stay online when your neighbors are shutting down due to spurious trips, freeze-ups and other unforeseen instrument maladies, then there's great value to be derived from integrated device intelligence. But the devices aren't intelligent enough to write work orders or order spare parts. We need a focused, motivated human in the loop to interpret the messages and make the right choices.
You need management support to create these positions. Next month we'll look at suggestions for how to "sell" instrument asset management to the boss.