Voices: Boyes

Are You Ready for Process Control?

Editor in Chief Walt Boyes asserts that today's tools have shifted our viewpoint and that process automation professionals need to care more about the process itself, and not just the controls.

By Walt Boyes

We're worried about our jobs, but as regular CONTROL contributor Dick Morley pointed out during our panel discussion at ISA 2004, we aren’t really losing them to China. Ironically, China itself is losing the same kinds of jobs to automation as we are. It is all about productivity. One-hundred years ago, it took over half the population of the U.S. to feed us. Now less than 5% of the population is involved in farming. Farmers were concerned about many things we take for granted. We’re in the enviable situation of having the first society where even the poor have television and cars, and where access to high-speed data transmission is a cutting-edge civil right. The average life expectancy has increased more than 30 years in the past century and now we can afford to be worried about lots of things like affordable health care, and specialized education for all. This is the effect of the increased productivity that we, who work in process automation, have created. As a society, we’ve moved on. And, as process automation professionals, we have to move on too. What people in our profession need to care moor about today is the process itself, and not just the controls.

First came reliable sensors and final control elements. Then came control loops, followed by distributed control systems and SCADA—all to give us a real-time picture of the state of the controls. From this picture, the operator and the process engineers were supposed to be able to infer that their process was running right, because the loops were all “right and tight.” As we all know, this wasn’t necessarily so. The gap between the data from the control system and the data from the lab and quality control was huge, and sometimes seemed an uncrossable divide.

Loop tuning, and advanced process control software, predictive maintenance and asset management are the productivity tools of the future, not controls. Field instruments and final control elements have been made such that reliability and uptime are assumed, not issues. Where previously, we measured the flow in a control loop, now we want to see not just the flow, but also the pump speed, the motor temperature, the vibration level and the torque necessary to open and close the control valve, and many more parameters. Recently, Siemens sent Paul Studebaker, Editor in Chief of Plant Services magazine, and the former occupant of this space, a list of the over 4,000 data tags that you can get out of a “simple” drive unit. All of these can be analyzed by predictive maintenance software, and translated into work tags that can keep a plant from unplanned shutdowns and maximize availability. And now we care much more about how to control the process than how to make the controls work.

This is an order of magnitude change. Taken individually, each loop may be working as well as it can, yet the process as a whole may be operating at far less than optimum throughput and efficiency. Today’s tools have shifted our viewpoint.

So what does this mean? The business of making instruments function is now a technician’s job. Automation engineers are much more useful connecting plant-floor systems to the enterprise asset management and supply chain systems than troubleshooting an obnoxious level measurement. Process engineers can now have more direct control over how the process as a whole works, because the instrumentation layer is more transparent, and increasingly interoperable. By our own incredible productivity, we’ve changed our jobs.

More from this voice

Title

Are You Ready for Process Control?

Editor in Chief Walt Boyes asserts that today's tools have shifted our viewpoint and that process automation professionals need to care more about the process itself, and not just the controls.

12/01/2004

C’mon, vendors, let’s step up!

ISA has been trying for years to get employers in the process industries to support process automation careers, but it could do a lot more if it had the volunteer involvement it used to have from vendors.

05/15/2005

Security is more than hating Microsoft

In his June editorial for CONTROL, Editor in Chief Walt Boyes believes we are picking unfairly on the security flaws of Microsoft, while ignoring the wider implications of the problem for process automation.

06/01/2005

How can we save ISA?

The resignation of ISA’s third Executive Director in less than six years makes CONTROL Editor in Chief Walt Boyes wonder what ISA has that still matters to the typical process automation end user.

07/01/2005

In the future: More, better, cheaper sensors

According to Editor in Chief Walt Boyes, instrumentation companies are going to have to re-think their design criteria if they are going to make the “lights out” plant of the future practical.

07/27/2005

The summertime blues

CONTROL Editor in Chief Walt Boyes prepares for another round of User Group Madness meetings and says he’d like to see creation of an unbiased user group run by end users of many different products.

08/07/2005

You better know more!

There is excellent training out there, provided by trainers who aren’t vendors, and don’t have the barely hidden agenda of wanting to sell you stuff.

08/28/2005

Can we make the jump to a wireless plant?

CONTROL's Editor in Chief Walt Boyes says that if we don't, we won't continue to show the productivity and cost savings we've been able to until now. Read how wireless can affect what you do.

10/10/2005

How safe is your job?

Editor in Chief Walt Boyes implores you to watch trends, stay current in your field, and have a backup plan just in case the levee breaks. After all, when it comes to job security, the best defense is a good offense.

11/01/2005

It's a great time to be an end-user!

Editor in Chief Walt Boyes says the Big Boys are prepared to buy your loyalty with all sorts of goodies, so keep your price high. It's a buyer’s market out there for the first time in decades. Read why.

12/02/2005

My opinion doesn't count!

Why do we do the Reader's Choice Awards? Because an editor's opinion doesn't matter, that's why. Read Editor Walt Boyes' column about this year's survey and find out who's the best...according to you!

01/09/2006

Institutional knowledge for the future

Knowledge earned by hard work and experience in process automation is waning at an alarming rate, but there are a few shining lights on the industrial landscape. CONTROL Editor in Chief Walt Boyes comments.

02/10/2006

Would you want your kid to do this job?

Despite a shortage of young engineering professionals, most of us don't want our kids to grow up to work in the automation industry, but what is automation but applied information science?

03/10/2006

End users walk the walk

There’s been a huge language shift in the industry during the past 20 years which is driving end user nuts. It seems the higher you go up in the automation food chain, the harder it is to describe what you do.

04/07/2006

Immigrants are us

We are all immigrants here, and if you look at the contributions made by immigrants to arts, letters, science and engineering in the U.S. over the past 400 years, the amount of innovation is staggering.

05/05/2006

Are the wireless standards stalled?

At one point, SP100 nearly didn't issue a true standard. Now, HART Wireless is in trouble, too. What’s it going to take to not repeat the SP50 debacle? CONTROL Editor in Chief, Walt Boyes, comments.

06/01/2006

Vendor vs. vendor

CONTROL Editor in Chief Walt Boyes issues a challenge to end users everywhere: Tell your vendors to stop playing Spy vs. Spy and participate fairly in standards creation for fieldbus and wireless.

07/03/2006

SP50 times two?

CONTROL Editor Walt Boyes says we need to do more than pay lip service to the idea of user input when it comes to ISA’s SP100 Wireless Standard and proposes formation of a central, unbiased user group.

09/01/2006

The world according to…

There may be no going back to the days when people believed that ISA was the voice of the end user, but if it wants to carve out new territory for itself, it needs to put money back into niche groups.

10/13/2006

UCSC and automation education

There aren’t many schools training automation professionals, but who can blame them for not wanting to do more than a head nod toward teaching the tools and techniques in their science and engineering curricula?

11/01/2006