Practical Solutions for Improving Engineering's Image and Value Beyond Dancing with Robots

What's Happening in the Process Control Field

By Greg McMillan, Stan Weiner, PE

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Stan: This month we continue the thread we started in March, sharing the experience gained over the 38-year career of Lewis Gordon, a principal control systems engineer retired from Invensys. Last month we focused on how to approach estimating and proving the benefits from applying advanced process control (APC) techniques, such as model predictive control (MPC). This month we seek a perspective on what is happening in the field of process control with regard to getting the most out of current technologies and people.

Greg: Stan and I have enough multicolored yarns to make a sweater, which, being as old as we are, is greatly appreciated in freezing restaurants. Along with addressing senior issues like "Where are we?" and "What the heck is going on?" we also wonder, "Why at social gatherings do people move away from us when we say we are process control engineers?" Will the sweater help?

Stan: Enough humor. More seriously, we wonder, "Why the declines in the number of process control engineers in the United States?" Two obvious trends are that few new plants are being built, and corporate engineering departments are shrinking, but why are plant process control specialists becoming an endangered species?

Lew: These days, every department must pay its own way. The trend is to eliminate everything that is not necessary to current operations or does not contribute to the bottom line. Short-term thinking dominates. The metrics used to evaluate management performance are focused on short-term financial goals. In this environment, a long-term perspective on improving control system performance often takes a back seat.

Greg: A famous case of the consequences of year-end bonuses involves a company that will remain nameless. To meet year-end financial goals, a business president sold a production unit for a price that was less than the profit it would make each quarter for the next several decades, and he still became CEO. Perhaps lower-level managers are not privy to the dramatic incentives of executives. Yet there seems to be less recognition of the need for new engineers to be given the time and money to develop new skills by attending conferences and courses and looking for process control improvements.

As the leader of the ISA mentor program, I see new engineers overloaded with project work and "doing more with less." Some of the managers of the mentored see the need to support professional development, but project schedules and budgets put tremendous pressure on the individuals, especially when the skills needed for project execution are not gained from the hundreds of books on automation. Hunter Vegas, co-leader of the mentor program and exceptional project manager and communicator, has started the conversation in the ISA book we coauthored, 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career.

The managers of advanced control groups, particularly those who are responsible for model predictive control in oil and gas and petrochemicals production, are experts in their own right and are still pushing the frontiers of technology, as seen in the June, 2013, "The Route to Model Predictive Control Success," and the September, 2012, "Bringing Advanced Process Control Home" Control Talk columns. However, I have the sense that automation managers in other industries don’t have the appreciation or knowledge of process control to make it a priority. The emphasis is often on just keeping the instruments on-line and doing the configuration, while process control improvement opportunities are taking a back seat or being neglected entirely.

These days, management has more allure than engineering. When I taught process control and modeling to chemical engineering undergraduates as an adjunct professor at Washington University, students even then felt that managers have better offices and no career ceiling. Many perceived that a master’s degree in business administration would be a better ticket to their future than a master’s degree or even a doctorate in engineering. Wall Street thinking is pervasive. The cover proposed for the 101 Tips book was a stock market chart with the Dow Jones jacked up. My rejection of the idea was not well- received. Neither was my objection to the depiction of engineers in the plant as wearing suits and ties.

What are the distinguishing characteristics of today’s managers?

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Number one on the Top 10 list of ways a process control engineer can be the life of a party is to "dance with a robot.

Lew: Engineering managers used to come more often from the engineering ranks. Now management is a profession in itself. Today’s engineering managers often know business models, but not necessarily what the engineers working for them really do. If they don’t know how difficult it is for an engineer to implement and improve process control systems and how much background learning is needed, the goals of practitioners will be totally driven by project financials. Engineers also are pressured more by upper management, since so many middle managers are gone.

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