Systems Integration

Practical Solutions for Improving Engineering's Image and Value Beyond Dancing with Robots

What's Happening in the Process Control Field

By Greg McMillan, Stan Weiner, PE

Stan: This month we continue the thread we started in March, sharing the experience gained over the 38-year career of Lewis Gordon, a principal control systems engineer retired from Invensys. Last month we focused on how to approach estimating and proving the benefits from applying advanced process control (APC) techniques, such as model predictive control (MPC). This month we seek a perspective on what is happening in the field of process control with regard to getting the most out of current technologies and people.

Greg: Stan and I have enough multicolored yarns to make a sweater, which, being as old as we are, is greatly appreciated in freezing restaurants. Along with addressing senior issues like "Where are we?" and "What the heck is going on?" we also wonder, "Why at social gatherings do people move away from us when we say we are process control engineers?" Will the sweater help?

Stan: Enough humor. More seriously, we wonder, "Why the declines in the number of process control engineers in the United States?" Two obvious trends are that few new plants are being built, and corporate engineering departments are shrinking, but why are plant process control specialists becoming an endangered species?

Lew: These days, every department must pay its own way. The trend is to eliminate everything that is not necessary to current operations or does not contribute to the bottom line. Short-term thinking dominates. The metrics used to evaluate management performance are focused on short-term financial goals. In this environment, a long-term perspective on improving control system performance often takes a back seat.

Greg: A famous case of the consequences of year-end bonuses involves a company that will remain nameless. To meet year-end financial goals, a business president sold a production unit for a price that was less than the profit it would make each quarter for the next several decades, and he still became CEO. Perhaps lower-level managers are not privy to the dramatic incentives of executives. Yet there seems to be less recognition of the need for new engineers to be given the time and money to develop new skills by attending conferences and courses and looking for process control improvements.

As the leader of the ISA mentor program, I see new engineers overloaded with project work and "doing more with less." Some of the managers of the mentored see the need to support professional development, but project schedules and budgets put tremendous pressure on the individuals, especially when the skills needed for project execution are not gained from the hundreds of books on automation. Hunter Vegas, co-leader of the mentor program and exceptional project manager and communicator, has started the conversation in the ISA book we coauthored, 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career.

The managers of advanced control groups, particularly those who are responsible for model predictive control in oil and gas and petrochemicals production, are experts in their own right and are still pushing the frontiers of technology, as seen in the June, 2013, "The Route to Model Predictive Control Success," and the September, 2012, "Bringing Advanced Process Control Home" Control Talk columns. However, I have the sense that automation managers in other industries don’t have the appreciation or knowledge of process control to make it a priority. The emphasis is often on just keeping the instruments on-line and doing the configuration, while process control improvement opportunities are taking a back seat or being neglected entirely.

These days, management has more allure than engineering. When I taught process control and modeling to chemical engineering undergraduates as an adjunct professor at Washington University, students even then felt that managers have better offices and no career ceiling. Many perceived that a master’s degree in business administration would be a better ticket to their future than a master’s degree or even a doctorate in engineering. Wall Street thinking is pervasive. The cover proposed for the 101 Tips book was a stock market chart with the Dow Jones jacked up. My rejection of the idea was not well- received. Neither was my objection to the depiction of engineers in the plant as wearing suits and ties.

What are the distinguishing characteristics of today’s managers?


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Number one on the Top 10 list of ways a process control engineer can be the life of a party is to "dance with a robot.

Lew: Engineering managers used to come more often from the engineering ranks. Now management is a profession in itself. Today’s engineering managers often know business models, but not necessarily what the engineers working for them really do. If they don’t know how difficult it is for an engineer to implement and improve process control systems and how much background learning is needed, the goals of practitioners will be totally driven by project financials. Engineers also are pressured more by upper management, since so many middle managers are gone.

Stan: Why does process control seem to be less important from a plant viewpoint?

Lew: Controls today have become more of a commodity. The computerization of everything in the 1970s opened up doors for users to develop and set up systems for data historians, data manipulation, process control improvement, and advanced process control. Today, the plant no longer needs to create these systems but can buy packaged software and hardware with proven technologies for process analysis and control. The toolset offered by suppliers is rich. Success no longer depends upon on building new tools but on applying available tools to better effect. The practitioner is freed up to focus on the application. Results can be achieved much faster when the tools are in place and engineers have the education and motivation.

Management has lost sight of the creativity inherent in process control. Designing and implementing a proper control system is like writing a symphony — getting all the parts to play together in harmony and perform in such a way that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

Greg: Engineers who move from mechanical or process engineering into control engineering do not go back. The dynamic world of process control is captivating. The control system is the window into the process and the only means of effectively running a plant. The capability of the new tools is incredibly freeing. The limit is now simply your imagination. Plants are under increasing pressure to get the most production for the least cost. This seems to be the ideal setup. Process control excels at pushing constraints for production rate and process efficiency. What can we do to open up minds?

Lew: Colleges excel at teaching control theory, but they do not prepare their graduating control engineers well for practical control work in a process plant. Perhaps we need universities to offer a degree in process control or a degree in technology somewhere between the B.S. degree and a trade school technician degree. If so, how do we attract students? Too many computer science engineers are ending up in creating video games and movie animation.

We need to emphasize the social contribution made by control engineers. People don’t realize that everything they use in terms of health and lifestyle requires process control. The basic stuff of everyday life — fuels, power, raw materials and food — all depend on process control for their creation and production.

Socially, if you say you are a control systems engineer, no one knows what that is. We don’t communicate what we do very well. You could stop a thousand people on the street before you would find one who has even heard of PID control. The enthusiasm for technology generated by NASA, the space race and moon landings has long gone. Now technology is largely out of public eye, except in consumer applications. The only time you hear about industrial technology is when something goes wrong, like the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.

Stan: Hunter Vegas is doing a great job of opening grade school students’ minds to science and engineering and participating in the high school FIRST robotics program, as noted in the January Control Talk, "Inspiring Future Generations of Engineers."

Greg: Maybe the next step is something dynamic like using a virtual plant to show the possibilities of a career in process automation. Having young engineers do dynamic demos would be better than an old guy like me. My approval rating soared at Washington University when I created a virtual plant lab and brought back graduates who talked about how this stuff was real and important. I subsequently created a series of process control labs for new engineers with a grading scheme that used metrics associated with the ability of various control systems to deal with load upsets and setpoint changes. While the user could set up and conduct test runs from interface like an operator screen, the software investment required to run the labs, while small (e.g. $1K), still required a PO, and the parameters and features that could be set were way beyond what a new engineer could appreciate.

While a virtual plant is suited for engineers with five or more years of plant experience, these practitioners do not have the time to even install the virtual plant software, let alone learn how to run scenarios. The Deminars (recordings of a dozen demos and seminars on the use of the labs) have been viewed more than 20,000 times, so there is some hope more people are using them than I know. The labs, presentations and instructions can be downloaded and the Deminars can be viewed at the sites set up by Jim Cahill. Maybe something flashy and simple can be used to impress executives as well. The big breakthrough in getting Monsanto executives excited about upgrading control systems was taking them into a control room with live operator graphics driven by real-time simulations.

Stan: Next month we conclude this discussion with ideas on how to prevent hard-won expertise from walking out the door.

Top 10 Ways a Process Control Engineer Can Be the Life of a Party

(10) Optimize a wireless still for designer brews.
(9) Use drones to deliver a drink whenever a glass becomes empty.
(8) Surround yourself with a virtual 3-D view of the "Wonders of the World."
(7) Wear an outfit that changes designs and pulses colors with music.
(6) Give the top 10 reasons an engineer makes a great spouse or at least a wedding gift.
(5) Play electro-tech music and ask for favorites.
(4) Have subtitles streaming across your forehead when explaining your job.
(3) Have sports results streaming across your forehead at all other times.
(2) Moonwalk in an astronaut’s space suite.
(1) Dance with a robot.