Process Control Engineers Needed To Distribute Their Knowledge

Advocacy is Essential to the System to Safeguard System, Develop Solutions Says Executive Editor Jim Montague in This Month's Installment of Control Report.

By Jim Montague

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What’s in a millisecond? Plenty, as most control engineers are well aware, especially those dealing with higher-speed applications. I just know that 1,000 milliseconds go by each time I start the old "one-one thousand” touch football chant. Truthfully, I always thought "one-banana” was too fast, and "one-Mississippi” was too slow, but I never heard of anyone trying verifying it.

The problem with milliseconds is they’re extremely tiny compared to most people’s experience. And just like any very large or very small number, milliseconds can be hard to comprehend in more than an abstract sense. In my case, receiving direct-deposit paychecks or paying down my mortgage still doesn’t seem as real as the four $20 bills I got in my first pay envelope.

Unfortunately, there are always some enterprising robbers ready to take advantage of these gaps in our awareness. The oldest is no doubt encouraging individuals to believe they can beat the mathematical odds of gambling.

Well, I ran across one of the latest and most sophisticated ripoffs while reading "The Wolf Hunters of Wall Street” by Michael Lewis in March 31’s The New York Times Magazine. This article was adapted from Lewis’ new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, and it shows how high-frequency traders, brokers and banks use software and networking to exploit the few milliseconds of latency in stock orders from mostly large institutional buyers, and trigger higher quoted prices for those stocks before the original orders can be completed.

When crimes are going on, control engineers need to advocate for change and help come up with solutions outside their usual spheres.

 Fortunately, the young team at the Royal Bank of Canada who discovered and investigated this predatory cheating also established the IEX stock exchange last October, which uses 38 miles of coiled fiber-optic cable at its data center in New Jersey to create a 350-microsecond delay that eliminates the unfair advantage of this "electronic front running” for a few traders, and restores fairness to the market.

Personally, I was pleased to see programmers, technicians and IT managers using their networking and software tools to level a financial playing field. And because these tools are increasingly familiar to process control engineers, I could better understand what they were talking about when they referred to network latency and the performance characteristics of fiber-optic cabling. Basically, the old police reporter in me especially enjoys seeing folks that make honest products and services throw off some of the parasites that don’t make any useful contributions to business or society, but still seem to crowd in on all sides.

My favorite column in Control is John Rezabek’s "On the Bus,” and his recent "Can Operators Hear the Fieldbus Music?” was no exception. In his March column, he stated, "The controls specialist strives to deliver measurements and automation transparently and stay out of the limelight.” This is true, of course, but I think it’s also a long-term problem because of all the problems going on in the larger world.
Sometimes, such as when stock markets are being rigged and other crimes are going on, process control engineers and similar technical professionals need to stand up, advocate for change and help come up with solutions outside their usual sphere—even of it means getting into some uncomfortable limelight.

I know control engineers can never get away from their primary responsibilities and the specialized applications that are their bread and butter. However, in the future, I think it would be equally helpful if they could participate in some larger systems and organizations, distribute their useful knowledge and awareness, participate in larger issues and communities—and, in some cases, help keep others honest.

Who knows? You could maybe save part of your own pension or 401K.

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