Process Control Harvest Time

On the Job and Off, It's Possible to Revisit Familiar Places, Issues and People, Explore Them More Fully and Gain a Deeper Understanding

By Jim Montague

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Maybe it's the back-to-school atmosphere. Maybe it's because we'll be covering a bunch of tradeshows and user groups this fall. Maybe it's because everyone can now comment on every article at Controlglobal.com. Or maybe I'm just a big, fat squirrel stuffing my elastic cheeks with acorns. Whatever the inspiration, autumn is a great time to gather choice items, and a biological and cultural imperative in temperate zones with winter's scarcity coming on, at least until global warming ramps up soon. Me, I collect facts about process control—and Doritos.

Of course, lots of details can be gathered by phone and on the Internet, and due to lack of time and travel budgets, they're how I secure most of my stories. However, these sources often feel slightly lacking and diluted because they're usually second- and third-hand accounts at a distance.

What I really crave primary sources and being there. Face-to-face interviews and on-site experiences are always more vivid and memorable than cobbling together hearsay and earlier accounts. For instance, I read a lot of books and watched even more TV as a kid, but the memories that really stand out and became part of me were all first-hand experiences.

In fact, I think the first tradeshow I ever attended was when my dad inexplicably dragged me and my brother to the New York Boat Show at the city's old convention center sometime in the late 1960s. We weren't too thrilled at first, but then we learned we could crawl up on and into all the yachts and check out the galleys, sleeping quarters and engines. Very cool, and probably one of the main reasons I enjoy tradeshows more than 40 years later.

Likewise, as a longtime reporter covering many beats, I much prefer getting out and into various trenches and talking to people about activities, events and issues that mean the most to them. For example, while I'd already written many process control stories, the field really came alive for me about seven or eight years ago when I visited Honeywell Specialty Materials' facility in Geismar, La. It was just a regular plant tour, but all the process applications, vessels, pipelines, valves, instruments, controllers, integrated security systems and other equipment gained a much stronger presence in my mind when I could see them running live and in-person, and learn how they were optimized by their engineers and operators.

Of their memories, people say, "I can see it just like it was yesterday." Well, the sheer vividness of direct experience gives it more staying power than text, audio or even video accounts. The more recent saying is, "Reality is the ultimate simulation/video game."

Unfortunately, magazine and website articles must by definition add an insulating layer between their readers and the actual facts and events going on. This is unavoidable, of course, or no part of the story could get across. But because all media are necessarily limiting, I recommend physically getting up, going out, seeing what's happening with your own eyes and ears—and maybe realize you've gained some new eyes and ears in the bargain.

I know this can be difficult with set schedules, deadlines, routine and responsibilities. Few of us can just pick up,and go off on desired adventures. However, both on the job and off, it's also possible to revisit familiar places, issues and people, explore them more fully and gain a deeper understanding.

There are always chances to collect new experiences. Take the long way home. Get into a few places you don't usually visit, meet people you don't usually talk to, and even discuss some new topics with your usual gang. With just a little effort, I've found I almost always find something new, surprising and invigorating. Acorns are fine. Interesting memories are better.

Then come back, tell someone about it, or even let me know. First-hand experiences are preferable, but other people's stories are almost as good because no one can be everywhere. You might even get me to take my own advice.

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