Process Automation Generations Talk to Each Other

A Dialog Across the Generations About Plant Operations and Each Generation's Different Ways of Looking at Problems

By Danaca Jordan, Greg McMillan, Soundar Ramchandran, Hunter Vegas

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The process control knowledge gained over four decades of experience is largely gone through retirement. I am the only person from Monsanto's Engineering Technology (ET) still practicing dynamic modeling and control and some may ask "practicing what?" since I am largely retired from active duty. The problem really hit home when I asked the biggest names in process control technology (Charlie Cutler, Béla Lipták, Bill Luyben and Greg Shinskey) to be keynote speakers at ISA Automation Week 2011 and found out they are or will soon be octogenarians. This is good news in terms of longevity, but a red flag in terms of losing access to incredible knowledge.

To add insult to injury, many of the books I consider my core knowledge are now out of print. To avoid a relegation of innovation in the automation profession to moving and manipulating data, we need to find out how to nurture and expand control expertise by better communication between generations. More specifically, how do we help the new generation of automation engineers benefit from the legacy and move the profession forward?

While some may say control technology is mature, I take the view the flexibility and power of modern day software opens up vast opportunities for creativity. We can take process control to the next level if we can address many questions. How can we take full advantage of what has been learned? Will people be given the time to explore new possibilities and the freedom to publish the knowledge gained? Will a supplier or a user ever again support a person like me? Will there ever be another Shinskey?

To get a view from each generation I posed key questions to Danaca Jordan, manufacturing staff engineer for a specialty chemical company, Hunter Vegas, senior project manager at Avid Solutions Inc., and Soundar Ramchandran, senior director of technology for Ascend Performance Materials. Each of these participants in the ISA Mentor Program has extraordinary technical and communication skills.

Answers by Danaca Jordan (Gen Y), Hunter Vegas (Gen X) and Soundar Ramchandran (Boomer)

Greg: What can each generation learn from the other generation in terms of communication and solving problems on the job?

Danaca: My generation needs to focus, realize communication has consequences and do more effective networking. Here are some things we need to learn and should try to share:

Multi-tasking is a part our generation's culture, and it can have positive effects, such as the ability to recover from interruptions quickly and extreme adaptability, but sometimes I lack the focus I see in other generations. I am guilty of checking email during meetings, browsing during teleconferences and having multiple IM sessions (internal company messages, of course) active while I'm trying to work on something that really deserves my full attention. We have more ways than ever to procrastinate and distract ourselves, and if we are not mindful, it will affect our productivity.

I often rely on artificial means, such as work timers and browser-time-out apps (StayFocusd, for instance) to really home in on more daunting tasks. I also disable Outlook pop-ups, most notifications and set my phone and Lync communicator to Do Not Disturb when I truly need to buckle down. I have learned recognize when I need to disengage from all of the technological noise, or I may end up staying late to finish a vital task after losing an hour to Wikipedia.

Another topic we could learn from others is the consequences of communication. Other generations tend to think we are naïve when it comes to the information that we share online, and I agree that we should try to learn from their mistakes. We have all heard the litany about posting photos or personal information that may damage your reputation, and many programs now offer improved anonymity or privacy settings to combat this. Profiles aren't the only way to slip up, however.

Through the examples of others, I have learned that written and verbal messages can and will be saved or forwarded to people you did not intend to include. The angry email you sent yesterday could end up hurting your credibility with a customer or your employer. In tense situations, I have made a habit of saving emails for the next day and often end up deleting or completely rewriting them.

A point here for all generations is that anything posted online is no longer under your control, including comments that could reflect badly on you or your company.

Finally, online networking is for more than just job-hunting. We have global virtual communities set up for almost everything that we do, like or support. There are forums for specific software and instrument user groups, archives of shared code and open edit wikis on thousands of topics. People all over the globe share stories in these forums about how specific products worked, what problems they encountered and how they overcame them without giving specific details of their plant's operation. Someone somewhere in the world is having the same issue you are, and we now have tools in place to discuss solutions without spending time or money on conferences and meetings. Newer engineers can ask questions with some anonymity, and veteran practitioners have a way to quickly share their experience and thoughts outside of formal journals and company reports.

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