The Evolution of the Process Control Engineer

We’ve Come a Long Way from the Days When Refinery Operators Used Flaming Arrows to Relight Their Flare Systems, but Even Bigger Changes May Be Ahead

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By Ian Nimmo

Of all the changes in the process control industry, none may be more dramatic than the changing role of the “operator.” His (or her) job has changed numerous times in response to technological advances, but we may be looking at the greatest change since the industrial revolution—the separation of field and control from operations.

Before you write me off as a wild-eyed crazy, let’s step back and see how we’ve gotten to where we are now. 
In 1953, only 100 computers existed in the world. IBM developed the 701 EDPM, which the company claimed was the first commercially successful general-purpose computer. Developed as part of the Korean War effort, the 701 was available to early computer users for $15,000 month.

Process manufacturing embraced this new technology, which would provide integrity for early process control computers, via core memory. The older engineers among us will have fond memories of loading an image and hand-booting the early PDP 11 machines. They always survived a power outage, and data corruption was rare. Since then, with every advance in computing power, the role of process control operators and engineers has changed.

When I started my career, a typical plant had multiple instrument and electrical engineers. However, 20 years later a maintenance manager, typically a mechanical engineer with responsibility for all of the instrument, electrical and mechanical operations, replaced all these people. Today, a new player—the control engineer—rules.
Operators’ roles have evolved as well. In the early days, local control shelters accommodated operators, who worked together as a team, sharing all the duties. In some cases, the most experienced operator or chief operator staffed the panel, but this person often had some outside duties too.

The panel operator worked with pneumatic instruments and controllers that provided information through clockwork chart displays. New hires were often “chart changers,” whose job every shift was to go along the panel, replace the chart paper and fill the color pens up with ink. But over the years, electronic single-loop, multiple electronic, PLCs and, eventually, distributed controllers replaced this technology.

The roles and responsibilities of panel operators have fluctuated for many years. Now with the popular trend of specialization and centralization, they are finally standardizing. However, for how long is probably a good question.

As the role of the panel operators has evolved, their home, the control room, has also been evolving from the uncomfortable and decidedly “people-unfriendly” brick shelters in the middle of the plant to the modern “theater style” control rooms properly designed for their occupants.


Control Room Panel Wall
Figure 1. The old-fashioned control room panel wall has been replaced by banks of monitors.

Meanwhile, the roles and responsibilities of traditional field operators may not have changed as dramatically. They, for the most part, still work in buildings in the middle of the process. However, these too are often now custom-designed, blast-resistant buildings with limited controls.

The field operator handles fewer manual operations, as most of the equipment is now fully or semi-automatic. We still have equipment that requires manual starting—big valves that need turning and safety-related equipment that requires manual inspection during startup.

The Control Room/Field Split

Many of those responsible for organizing their process control systems still have mixed feelings about roles and responsibilities and how the work should be split between the field and control room. They often ask “should all jobs be rotated or should specialization and skill divide these roles.”

For a better perspective, let’s review this evolution and examine what the roles and responsibilities should be.

We also need to put these roles in context. If you have attended one of the popular Operational Excellence seminars (OpX), you will have heard the instructor say that the most important and mission-critical roles in the plant are the process control operator, then the field equipment operator, followed by their shift team supervisor.

The process control operator or console/panel operator is the one person who has the most influence on the success or failure of your production process. This person can make a profit, or be responsible for major loss. He or she can influence product quality and the cost of manufacturing, as they can influence energy usage and the cost of utilities.

A good friend of mine always tells plant managers that these people are so important to you that you should send a limousine to pick them up each morning and take them home at night. You better treat them right while they are at work and provide them with the best environment possible to ensure that they stay awake, alert and motivated for work.

Everyone laughs at this—especially the operators—but behind this joke is an important message, one that challenges using process control operators as janitors and cleaners. Permanently monitoring the process is a best practice. An operator needs to maintain situation awareness, and any distraction, including other duties, makes it impossible to track the process and anticipate abnormal situations.

Through this examination of the evolution of the operator’s roles and responsibilities, we can identify some of the gaps in the new practices which many companies struggle with on a daily basis.

At one time, every operator was an outside operator. His or her role was to monitor and control equipment and coordinate maintenance activities. He took samples of the product and tested them for quality and against a specification. She had cleaning and minor maintenance duties, such as greasing and draining lines.

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