Process Automation Generations Talk to Each Other

A Dialog Across the Generations About Plant Operations and Each Generation's Different Ways of Looking at Problems

By Danaca Jordan, Greg McMillan, Soundar Ramchandran, Hunter Vegas

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  • From Boomers, the positive and upbeat attitude and to ask "why" and "how," enough times to get to the root cause of something;
  • From Generation X to become self-aware, focus on individual strengths and weaknesses, and figure out how we can work as a team to deliver great results;
  • From the Millennials, the speed of adaptation, opening our minds to new ideas and new ways of looking at things, and using the new tools being developed to take advantage of the power of electronic means of communication.

Greg: What are the biggest challenges faced and potential improvements in terms of getting the right information that is timely and useful?

Danaca: There are several key issues involved in sorting through and finding helpful information quickly. The foremost concern is information overload. When first looking into a subject, the sheer volume of information that has been written is overwhelming. Journals, books, blogs and papers are scattered across the Web and mixed with biased marketing literature. Much of the educational literature is not online or searchable, so can be accessed only through hard copy. Finally, from a normal Google search, it is difficult to determine if a paper or book is still viable. Is this instrument still the best for liquid service; is this rule of thumb good for newer column trays?

The surest way to combat the overload is with a mentor. A knowledgeable mentor will help narrow down the mass volume of information by suggesting an author or article for various topics.

Without strong mentor programs in place, we lean on wikis and online recommendations to point us in the right direction. In a solid entry or blog, authors will give overviews of a topic with links and citations to peer-reviewed articles and books. Open editing and commenting reveals or prevents biases. I often think that this kind of system would be wonderful for an internal company knowledge base. We could add our technical reports, discuss comments and questions, and share ideas between isolated sites and corporate engineering without formal meetings, conference call-in codes, or cost center charges.

Hunter: There are a couple of key concepts that, if understood and applied, would have an enormous positive impact in the engineering workplace of today. These are

  • Many "new" technologies are rebranded/repackaged "old" technologies.
  • Some new technologies are new and can be transformational.
  • Change is not always good.
  • Change is not always bad.

It is an odd mix, but each concept has very different meanings to different age groups.

  • Many "new" technologies are rebranded/repackaged "old" technologies – Despite what one reads in the latest marketing brochures, most "new" technologies are not new at all. They are reincarnated versions of an old technology that has probably been around for years. Often the performance of the device is somewhat limited by the physics of the sensor technology, so it will often fail and/or succeed much as it did when it was released years ago. This is where more experienced engineers can offer a great deal of insight when evaluating these "new" technologies. Is it new or is it just re-introduced? Why did it fail before? Has that issue been addressed and/or resolved? Adding a glitzy computerized front end may make the device look impressive, but it may not work any better than it did when it came out years ago.
  • Some new technologies are new and can be transformational. – Occasionally a new technology hits the market that is new and works an order of magnitude better than any competing offering. If such a technology presents itself, an engineer would be foolish not to take advantage of it. This is where younger engineers tend to shine, as they generally follow the latest trends and are more knowledgeable on the most recent offerings. However, just because a new product looks good does not mean that it will actually work. A more experienced engineer will tend to be more cautious when implementing such a technology to be certain it delivers all that it promises. (That caution is usually the result of several past instances where the "best thing since sliced bread" was not all it was purported to be.)
  • Change is not always good – Younger engineers are used to a constantly changing world and tend to be more comfortable with an atmosphere of continuous change. Unfortunately, change for change's sake is not always a good thing. There may be a sound reason why the plant has "always done it that way," and just because the current technology is old does not mean that it isn't the best solution available. (There are still situations in industry where a pneumatic transmitter is absolutely the best choice!) New is not necessarily better, and a low tech, reliable solution will often outperform the "latest and greatest" product in many situations.
  • Change is not always bad – Older engineers tend to stick with the tried and true. If it works, why mess with it? However, that reluctance to try new things will often make them miss out on transformational technologies that can generate dramatic improvements in productivity and reliability. Even harder for an older engineer is the decision to give a particular technology another try after it has failed before. Consider electronic transmitters. Early adopters had all kinds of problems with reliability and performance when they installed the first generations of electronic transmitters. In some cases, hundreds of transmitters were pulled from service and replaced with pneumatics. After such an epic failure, I have no doubt that it was very difficult to give the technology a second chance, but clearly the electronic transmitter concept was worth pursuing once the bugs and problems had been resolved.

The point of my answer is that both young and older engineers have much to offer each other if they open their minds and hear what the other group has to say. Older engineers should listen to younger engineers and try out their ideas when they present them. Younger engineers should listen to the older engineers and understand the history of why certain equipment and/or procedures are being used. Each has information the other desperately needs.

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