The Perfect Storm of Skills

McMillan and Weiner Talk to Jack Ahlers about His Career and Why He Became Interested in Dynamics and Process Control?

By Greg McMilland, Stan Weiner

Greg: When I was reintroduced to Jack Ahlers about four years ago, I was amazed by the breadth and depth of his skills and experience. He's the key guy for instrumentation, configuration, simulation, operator graphics, historians and process control at a crop chemical firm.

Stan: Give us a brief summary of your career?

Jack: I started at the Muscatine, Iowa, plant in 1989. I did Fortran simulations for testing and training for DCS systems being used to replace pneumatic instrumentation and electronic controllers. A few years later, a process control group was formed with great people like P. D. Patel and Carol Pulliam and led by Bernie Hardin. We then got into process control improvement, including optimizing a compounding facility and creating flexibility in blending and product encapsulation. An important part was the innovative batch process algorithms and loops to return to an operating point mid-batch whenever there was a problem. I then moved to a Fayetteville,  N.C., plant to become the IT supervisor for the boilers and utilities. I got to learn the business side of process management and a better emphasis on costs. Next, I became the IT infrastructure team lead at the Luling, La., plant. I did process control for the production units of major intermediate chemicals, which eventually resulted in a process control group being formed. I ended up being a process control specialist for all of crop chemicals with responsibility for all projects for new plants and upgrades. Presently, I am spearheading a global migration plan to the next generation of DCS to be completed by 2015.

Stan: What were your two major challenges when you first started out?

Jack: Starting out with an electrical engineering degree meant I needed to come up to speed quickly on process and business interrelationships, especially since the perception might be that I was simply an instrument and electrical (E/I) engineer. The major, persisting challenge was making sure the DCS was an enabler rather than inhibitor. Initially, there were extensive problems with getting the DCS to change as fast as the business decisions. I decided to not make the DCS part of the conversation. This, plus the process of developing simulations, forced me to become process-aware. I gained a lot of practical process knowledge from virtualization of the chemistry.

Greg: I attribute most of my knowledge of process dynamics to writing and programming the differential equations for material, energy, momentum and charge balances in simulations of unit operations for process control improvement. These equations provide an understanding of first principles, which were discussed in Control Talk blog's post for Aug. 3, 2012,  “Where Do Process Dynamics Come From?” (

Stan: What provided the inspiration to learn more about dynamics and process control?

Jack: I had a group leader, Bernie Hardin, who pushed us in this direction. The generation before me made process control something you wanted to do. People like Bob Heider and the drivers of process control improvement (PCI) initiative were inspiring. PCI included opportunity sizings and assessments (see June 2012 column, “The Human Factor,”, as well as an integrated manufacturing committee (IMC) headed by the late, great Vernon Trevathan, creator of the ISA Certification of Automation (CAP) program. When the suitcase for valve testing was on the front page of the IMC Newsletter, we started testing our own valves and solving problems.

Stan: The transition from analog electronic computing modules to function blocks in a DCS is an analogous situation. However, the leadership may no longer be there to try to do more than the obvious. Our supervisors were previously E/I and process control engineers with decades of experience.

Jack: What management thinks is important is quite different than what the process control specialist values.

Greg: Reporting of benefits will open doors. This is a key part of MPC success, as discussed in June's Control Talk, “The Route to MPC Success.” This column shows the value of building infrastructure to take advantage of advances in tools. Dennis Cime, featured in this column, is clearly a person with extensive process control experience.

Stan: Who are the key people who can get the process to perform better?

Jack: The people whose needs you most want to make sure you meet are the operators. You can do it by being there in the control room and with better operator training that elevates operations' expectations and levels of achievement.

Greg: What was your motivation when you became a supervisor in IT?

Jack: My venture into IT was to get the data to the process engineer, eliminating the prevalent use of manual data entry and personal spreadsheets. I needed to understand process data historians, disk storage, security and decisions on how frequently and what to collect in data.

Stan: Why does IT seem to be at odds with the user of the data and the process control specialist?

Jack: Access was often denied. There were privilege and navigation issues. Compression was too large and update rates were too slow for process control engineers. IT focused on protecting the data administrator from the data owner. IT is always in the doomsday mode. Broad rules were applied, many of which are no longer valid because disk storage is so cheap. However, if the IT person does not understand dynamics, inertia and tradition persists, making the analysis and identification of dynamic responses a frustrating or even futile experience. Slow data can result in enormous lost opportunities. For example, each second we cut out of the centrifuge cycle gives us $1 million more in worldwide capacity.

Greg: How did you change the perspective in IT?

Jack: I stimulated collaboration with the users and shifted the cost reward relationship to the reward side. I realized IT exists to support manufacturing and not vice versa.

Stan: What are process control engineers today doing in the plants with all this data?

Jack: Except for the ISA mentor program protégés, the plant automation engineers are focusing on Six Sigma analysis, rather than on innovative solutions using PID and MPC.

Greg: The lure of tools that eliminates the need for understanding is great, and can result in the disappearance of resources and skills within the plants.

Jack: Are we going to be the last generation that emphasizes the fundamental concepts and insights of dynamics and control because of a change in management goals, advancement of tools, appeal of rapid worldwide data access and gratification, and the retirement of process control advocates?

Greg: I am trying, through the ISA and Mynah Technologies mentor programs, to reverse the trend. So far, the results are encouraging, but the pressures to revert to business as usual are tremendous. The protégés are an example of the initiative and energy of the next generation.

Top 10 Reasons for IT to Set the Data Compression and Update Rate

10. Money saved on data storage pays for part of IT Christmas party.
9. IT meets its goals.
8. IT Rules!
7. Identified dead time is now more constant.
6. Identified process gain is more constant.
5. Valves don't appear to be sticky.
4. Measurement noise is history.
3. Overshoot is gone.
2. Process is drawing straight lines.
1. Headquarters executives touring plant are impressed. 

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