The Education of Future Automation Engineers

Today There Are Less Experienced People and Less Time to Provide One-on-One Guidance on the Job

By Greg McMillan, Stan Weiner

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Greg: Students going from the university classroom into the control room are faced with considerable challenges in translating four years of intense education into practical industrial applications. Internal courses at companies, such as the six weeks of hands-on training I got when starting at Monsanto, have largely gone by the way side. Just understanding the jargon and working with control system is a considerable hurdle.

Stan: The use of experienced personnel to guide the new employee is increasingly scarce. I spent a good part of my career helping new automation engineers who were thrown into action as the lead instrument and electrical (E&I) engineer on projects at Monsanto, most notably John Berra (retired CEO of Emerson Process Management). I helped Greg take over John's project when John left to start his journey to extraordinary executive accomplishments.

Greg: Today there are less experienced people and less time to provide this one-on-one guidance on the job. Anything a university can do to prepare a graduate for working in industry is increasingly important. When I was introduced to the professors at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology  while giving some presentations to a major pharmaceutical company on the use of virtual plant for optimizing bioreactor control, I got the impression this university was doing something exceptional in the preparation of a graduate for a career in the process industry. Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ron Artigue and Atanas Serbezov, professors of chemical engineering at Rose-Hulman.

Stan: In our experience universities tend to be most interested in getting funding and recognition for graduate research projects. The sense of accomplishment is more about invention leading to tenure. Publish or perish is the thought behind the scenes. How is Rose-Hulman different?

Ron: The focus at Rose-Hulman is mostly on undergraduate education and providing a hands-on experience using industrial process control systems. Approximately 80% of the graduates go on to work in the process industry. More than 90% of the students will have internships in industry. Eighty percent have more than one. We also have a master's degree program for those who want to do research before moving to industry.

Greg: What are types of companies do you work with in the process industry?

Atanas: We have strong working relationships with companies in the pharmaceutical, corn processing, oil and gas, polymer and consumer personal care industries.

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Stan: How are the professors involved in these industries?

Ron: Many Rose-Hulman professors work in industry and bring in projects. For example, professors have available the equivalent of one day a week plus summers for consulting. Typically courses are taught Monday–Tuesday and Thursday–Friday, many times giving Wednesday as a free day for professional development activities. Many professors go out and seek opportunities in industry.

Greg: How does this translate to student education?

Atanas: The student internships and professor collaboration and consulting are put to work on projects brought in by professors from industry. The industrial experience changes the dynamics in the classroom. Students can relate to application problems and contribute to the solutions. The small instructor-to-student ratio in these project-based courses (typically 1:9) provides the one-on-one guidance on the job that Stan and Greg were talking about earlier.

Stan: How do students get hands-on experience with industrial process control systems?

Ron: Each student spends considerable time in our Unit Operations Laboratory courses with seven unit operations monitored and controlled by a state-of-the-art distributed control system and industrial instrumentation. We have a two-story Corning distillation column (separating isopropyl and isobutyl alcohol), a filter press, control and instrumentation skid with centrifugal and positive displacement pumps, a plug flow reactor (reacting ethyl acetate and caustic), a microfiltration system, and a 20-liter bioreactor vessel for temperature and dissolved oxygen control studies. This equipment is pilot-plant scale, whereas some universities are using bench-top experiments more than ever. Many students also have the opportunity to learn design and production plant techniques by helping design and construct new unit operations projects complete with measurements and control.

Greg: The bench-top scale often leads to lab type of measurement and control systems not seen in industry. The lab experience has less practical value unless the student is going to end up being a chemist or biochemist. This does not have to be the case as noted in the April 2012 Control Talk "New Paradigm for Lab Control Systems"  where the use of a lab-optimized industrial DCS is used for bench-top bioreactors. This DCS was augmented with industrial wireless instrumentation for a pilot-plant bioreactor on carts to make the system portable and flexible.

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