Asset Management / Optimization

The education of future automation engineers is lacking mentors

Today There Are Less Experienced People and Less Time to Provide One-on-One Guidance on the Job

By Greg McMillan, Stan Weiner

Greg: Students going from the university classroom into the control room are faced with considerable challenges in translating four years of intense education into practical industrial applications. Internal courses at companies, such as the six weeks of hands-on training I got when starting at Monsanto, have largely gone by the way side. Just understanding the jargon and working with control system is a considerable hurdle.

Stan: The use of experienced personnel to guide the new employee is increasingly scarce. I spent a good part of my career helping new automation engineers who were thrown into action as the lead instrument and electrical (E&I) engineer on projects at Monsanto, most notably John Berra (retired CEO of Emerson Process Management). I helped Greg take over John's project when John left to start his journey to extraordinary executive accomplishments.

Greg: Today there are fewer experienced people and less time to provide this one-on-one guidance on the job. Anything a university can do to prepare a graduate for working in industry is increasingly important. When I was introduced to the professors at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology  while giving some presentations to a major pharmaceutical company on the use of virtual plant for optimizing bioreactor control, I got the impression this university was doing something exceptional in the preparation of a graduate for a career in the process industry. Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ron Artigue and Atanas Serbezov, professors of chemical engineering at Rose-Hulman.

Stan: In our experience universities tend to be most interested in getting funding and recognition for graduate research projects. The sense of accomplishment is more about invention leading to tenure. Publish or perish is the thought behind the scenes. How is Rose-Hulman different?

Ron: The focus at Rose-Hulman is mostly on undergraduate education and providing a hands-on experience using industrial process control systems. Approximately 80% of the graduates go on to work in the process industry. More than 90% of the students will have internships in industry. Eighty percent have more than one. We also have a master's degree program for those who want to do research before moving to industry.

Greg: What are types of companies do you work with in the process industry?

Atanas: We have strong working relationships with companies in the pharmaceutical, corn processing, oil and gas, polymer and consumer personal care industries.

Also Read: Calling All Future Engineers

Stan: How are the professors involved in these industries?

Ron: Many Rose-Hulman professors work in industry and bring in projects. For example, professors have available the equivalent of one day a week plus summers for consulting. Typically courses are taught Monday–Tuesday and Thursday–Friday, many times giving Wednesday as a free day for professional development activities. Many professors go out and seek opportunities in industry.

Greg: How does this translate to student education?

Atanas: The student internships and professor collaboration and consulting are put to work on projects brought in by professors from industry. The industrial experience changes the dynamics in the classroom. Students can relate to application problems and contribute to the solutions. The small instructor-to-student ratio in these project-based courses (typically 1:9) provides the one-on-one guidance on the job that Stan and Greg were talking about earlier.

Stan: How do students get hands-on experience with industrial process control systems?

Ron: Each student spends considerable time in our Unit Operations Laboratory courses with seven unit operations monitored and controlled by a state-of-the-art distributed control system and industrial instrumentation. We have a two-story Corning distillation column (separating isopropyl and isobutyl alcohol), a filter press, control and instrumentation skid with centrifugal and positive displacement pumps, a plug flow reactor (reacting ethyl acetate and caustic), a microfiltration system, and a 20-liter bioreactor vessel for temperature and dissolved oxygen control studies. This equipment is pilot-plant scale, whereas some universities are using bench-top experiments more than ever. Many students also have the opportunity to learn design and production plant techniques by helping design and construct new unit operations projects complete with measurements and control.

Greg: The bench-top scale often leads to lab type of measurement and control systems not seen in industry. The lab experience has less practical value unless the student is going to end up being a chemist or biochemist. This does not have to be the case as noted in the April 2012 Control Talk "New Paradigm for Lab Control Systems"  where the use of a lab-optimized industrial DCS is used for bench-top bioreactors. This DCS was augmented with industrial wireless instrumentation for a pilot-plant bioreactor on carts to make the system portable and flexible.

Stan: The days of accomplishment BY holing up in a cubicle to the exclusion of others are long gone. The depth and spectrum of skills needed are too great for an individual to work alone, plus successful implementation requires mutual understandings between design, operations and maintenance. Do what extent do you couple hands-on experience with communication skills?

Atanas: The students start using the lab in the third quarter of their junior year. The students run five projects working with faculty to achieve objectives that many times include a design of experiments (DOE). The students write multiple project reports and give a formal presentation on project results in each quarter. A lot of emphasis is given on improving written and oral communication. We give first-hand experience in today's workplace where almost everything is a team effort.

Greg: What do students get in terms of a practical process control education?

Ron: The course in advanced process control uses a DCS configuration and instrumentation system design done by the students. A development system is used for modeling and design. Two-person teams work together simultaneously to transfer the results to a production system.

Stan: What kind of support has enabled you to take this approach?

Atanas: We have recently received Dean's funding to purchase new servers. Emerson has donated DeltaV DCS software licensing, and Cornerstone Controls has given us significant discounts on hardware. Endress-Hauser has donated a large number of instruments and given significant discounts as well on process instrumentation, such as Coriolis mass flow meters. We have received instrumentation donations from Eli Lilly and Company as well. Marathon Petroleum Corporation provided the funds for the development and simulation DeltaV system.

Greg: How would you sum up your program?

Ron: We are preparing our students to be able to contribute immediately upon graduation by having a practical engineering focus in many of our courses, including process control. We also provide lots of courses and research experiences for those destined for graduate school. We provide a hands-on experience with real systems and automation to solve real application problems.

Greg: To further show the practical importance of giving students hands-on experience with modern industrial instrumentation and the latest distributed control systems, consider the success story of Bob Heider's Digital Process Control Laboratory at Washington University in Saint Louis. His class more than doubled in size, and several graduates have gone on to have important careers in automation. When I taught the course there on modeling and control for chemical engineering students, I used a virtual plant to provide an experimental basis for improving column and pH control systems. The students loved the labs more than the lectures. Even if their destination was in process engineering, I helped them appreciate the automation system as the means of seeing and affecting the process. The virtual plant with simulations of complex unit operations running faster than real time gave them the opportunity to rapidly make and break control systems. I think both actual and virtual automation systems optimize learning. Students benefit from working with the hardware and realizing the flexibility of the software.

Stan: If you or your kin are deciding what degree might best offer the most extensive job opportunities see the "Top Ten Reasons to Become a Chemical Engineer."

"Top Ten Reasons to Become a Chemical Engineer"

(10) No chemical imbalances.
(9) Everything is in equilibrium.
(8) Energy is conserved.
(7) Mass is conserved.
(6) Optimization of your distillery.
(5) Even power plants require chemical engineering.
(4) Oil and gas are chemicals.
(3) Plants are no longer wired for electrical engineers.
(2) Simulation rules!
(1) "Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible."