Greg: The complete automation engineer has the ability to understand chemical engineering principles and dynamics, improve communication with process engineering and operations, solve measurement and control valve problems, and have the practical knowledge to implement the best distributed control system (DCS) configuration. Companies have enabled this capability by courses and plant assignments. An example of what can be done is seen in the career of Owen Campney, a longtime friend. Owen joined the Monsanto Corporate Engineering electrical and instrument (E&I) design department shortly after I returned from plant assignments in E&I construction. Owen presently contracts as a DCS configuration specialist. Here we ask Owen how he progressed through his career and what type of problems he faced.
Owen got some very focused practical training via a Monsanto E&I school with pH and distillation control labs I put together to provide a hands-on wet lab experience. Hopefully, the attendees didn’t get too wet because I was wet behind the ears when I designed the bench-top scale neutralizer and column. Besides the internal E&I school, what did Monsanto do to help bring you to speed?
Owen: Monsanto partnered with Washington University in Saint Louis (WUSTL) to provide a three-semester intensive course. The course was originally designed for plant production engineers as a refresher in chemical engineering to enable them to become process and mechanical design engineers at the corporate engineering headquarters in Saint Louis. The last couple of years the program was opened up to include E&I engineers. Some of the more notable courses were reaction engineering taught by a professor who would go on to receive numerous awards for collaborative research, and an analyzer course taught by an adjunct professor with extensive plant experience. The course helped me to ask process engineers intelligent questions. I put the knowledge to good use by doing a component balance that showed throwing another recycle stream into a unit operation was not practical because operation was adversely affected.
Greg: We have, in a way, come full circle in that there is an excellent WUSTL hands-on wet lab process control course taught by Monsanto retiree Bob Heider that prepares students for a career in the process industry as highlighted in Jim Cahill's post "Accelerating the Process Automation Learning Curve".
Stan: What were some of your early assignments?
Owen: I was the lead instrument engineer for boiler projects at Monsanto’s Saint Louis and Texas City plants to keep up with the changing steam demand from plant expansions.
Greg: Texas City was preparing for the world’s largest acrylonitrile plant that would end up being my next relocation as the lead E&I design engineer and subsequent construction and start-up engineer. It was the heyday of building chemical plants with a corporate engineering department of 1600 or more engineers. Then the beginning of the end occurred with a decline to a present day staff about 1/100th of the peak. When we stopped building chemical plants, where did you go and what were some of things you did?
Owen: I transferred to an E&I group in the plant engineering department to a plant on the Gulf Coast. I worked on small projects and helped the technicians in troubleshooting loops.
I supported the start-up of a brand new, world-class hydrocarbon production unit and subsequently helped in debottlenecking projects. I improved the split range in the DCS to provide a smoother transition from one stream to another by an innovative strategy to prepare the stream conditions of the next stream to be as close as possible to normal, and the conditions of the existing stream being throttled just before the crossing of the split range point.
There was a whole series of valve problems I worked on. In a new hydrocarbon plant I found a year-old current-to-pneumatic transducer (I/P) for surge valves that was too slow. I adjusted pneumatic switches on the isolation valves on reaction air to slow down the stroke when the valves reached the steep part of the installed characteristic to reduce the upset and potential surge and shutdown of the compressor upon a reactor shutdown. I replaced new positioners that were failing on another compressor due to internal welds in levers breaking from vibration. The supplier provided a different model positioner from overseas. I found two boosters in parallel on surge valves were fighting with each other, an oscillation possibly triggered and aggravated by vibration. I went to one booster. I upsized actuators on the block-and-vent valves on reactor exit to help them break free from the sticking due to the residue from minor chemical components in the reaction gas. In a pressure swing absorption (PSA) unit I found which valve positioners had lost their calibration, a common problem at the time for pneumatic positioners.