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

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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 Broad rules were applied, many of which are no longer valid because disk storage is so cheap.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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