Béla Lipták Looks Back at a Half-Century of Process Automation

We've come a long way; still have a way to go.

By Bela Liptak

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When I started to work as a process control engineer in the late 1950s, the toilet float and the thermostat were considered to be automation. At that time, the main job of the instrument department in a plant was to clean plugged pressure taps and stuck control valves, while our control panels were full of push buttons, blinking lights and manual loading stations.

My Past

In 1956, we Hungarians fought for freedom and independence, and tried to get rid of Soviet occupation. We used the Molotov cocktail and small arms against their 2,400 tanks. Obviously, we were crushed, and 250,000 young and educated Hungarians (2.5% of the population) escaped. I was one of them.

Later, I received a scholarship at the Stevens Institute of Technology and graduated there. At this point I got lucky, because a former commissioner of President Roosevelt, Sam Russell, had just started an engineering firm and he hired me. During World War II, Sam's job was to replace the natural rubber supplies that were blocked by the Japanese, with synthetic rubber. He did—he knew how to get things done.

His engineering design firm, Crawford and Russell, which focused on plastics, was a success, and I, as his chief instrument engineer, had to hire more and more people, because jobs were coming in left and right. I remember it was an ABS plant for GE in 1959 where I first used a computer. It was little different from John von Neumann's IAS (Figure 1). At that time, vacuum tubes had just been replaced by silicon transistors, and nobody had yet heard of MOS semiconductors or microprocessors.

So I had to hire people. With my thick Hungarian accent and 25 years of age, I did not feel comfortable hiring experienced engineers, so I asked Sam to let me hire smart, fresh graduates from the best schools, and to let me use every Friday to teach them our profession. He agreed, and in a couple of years I had the best instrument engineering department of 26 "kids." I also had a foot-high pile of my "Friday notes" accumulated on the corner of my desk. At this point I got lucky again, because an old fashioned publisher named Nick Gronevelt visited me. He reminded me of my grandfather, as his hair was parted in the middle and his watch was held by a gold chain hanging from his vest-pocket.

Nick asked why I didn't teach from an instrument handbook and I told him, "Because we have none."

See Also: Process Automation Generations Talk to Each Other

"So let us turn your Friday Notes into one," he said, and in 1963 the first edition of my The Instrument Engineers Handbook (IEH) was published. The co-authors included such names as Page Buckley, Hans Baumann, Greg Shinskey, Paul Murrill, Les Driscoll and Cecil Smith, and the preface was written by Edward Teller, who understood the future of automation. I dedicated the book to the Hungarian Freedom Fighters.

Today, 50-plus years later, I am working on the fifth edition.

Where Are We Today?

In the 1950s, our profession was called instrumentation; now it is called automation. Today we have robots on Mars that can vaporize the rocks by laser to determine their composition, and soon, while sitting in our hydrogen-fueled driverless cars, we will be able to order pizza to be delivered hot by the time we get home, and our smart car is parking itself.

At the time of the first edition, I was teaching process control in the chemical engineering department of Yale University, and my handbook was published by the electrical engineering division of Chilton. Why? It was not because Yale or Chilton had something against our profession. No, it was because they did not even know that the profession of process control existed. So how much change occurred over the past 50 years? Not that much.

Well, to my knowledge, one still cannot receive a Ph.D. in automation, and only a few universities offer a bachelor of science or even associate degrees in automation and control engineering . There are a number of certification programs, and ISA currently offers two : Certified Automation Professional (CAP) and Certified Control Systems Technician (CCST). Online certificates also are offered at the University of Kansas and at Dalhouse University.

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  • <p>Bela is pointing toward an ideal OCS. What I frequently observe too effort to operate the plant through the safety system. The implementation of the HAZOP may get so detailed that frequent by-passes of the safety system are needed by the operator. I could ask what is new. Field switches and relay panels once was the OCS. Jumpers were frowned upon. In my experience neither the operator nor the HAZOP are without shortcomings and need mutual respect as part of the layers of safety. Harry Elliott</p>


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