How to effectively get engineering knowledge

Passing on all you've learned to the next generation of engineers is crucial—and challenging

By Greg McMillan, Stan Weiner

Stan: The future of the automation profession is at a critical turning point. We have enthusiastic energetic engineers eager to learn moving into the profession and still enough of the experienced old timers to get them started in the right direction.

Greg: I started a personalized ISA mentor program about four years ago that sought to help guide individuals who are relatively new to the profession. The only requirement was that the individual be a user with two or more years of plant experience. I was fortunate in getting Hunter Vegas, who has extensive practical project experience, a great sense of humor and an intense desired to help the automation profession, to be co-mentor. I realized Hunter could be a great guide in getting the most out of automation projects when I did the Oct and Nov 2010 Control Talk Columns, "Successful Retrofit and Automation Projects" and  "Retrofit Projects – Getting the Flows Right." Hunter's knowledge of project execution complemented my knowledge of control strategies and the performance capabilities of PID controllers, measurements and valves most evident in my latest book from Momentum Press Tuning and Control Loop Performance – 4th Edition. Hunter and I learned some of the challenges the new engineer faces. To help others beyond the mentor program we coauthored an ISA book 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career.

We are fortunate to have Keneisha Williams, senior process control engineer for Georgia-Pacific Chemicals LLC who joined the ISA Mentor Program in 2013, to give us a perspective of the challenges faced by a young engineer today.

Stan: What is your job like?

Keneisha: I enjoy process control. I am at the division level, which gives me the opportunity to work at many sites. There is a lot of travel involved since there are eight facilities. Face-to-face communication works best, so I end up being on the road 80% to 90% of the time to feel productive.

Greg: During the process control initiative at Monsanto and Solutia described in the June 2012 Control Talk Column "The Human Factor",  I was on the road about 40 weeks out the year. Even the best ideas may never see the light of day unless you are there to establish a productive relationship and to truly know the operation and installation. You also need to be there for implementation and follow-up. Additionally people are so busy these days you have the "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome.

Stan: Do you have someone to help guide you?

Keneisha: I am the only process control engineer, so I have to be more self-reliant and display more initiative. I don't have an official mentor, but my manager functions well in this role with his background in process control, a degree in chemical engineering and experience in information technology (IT). Getting the right data is very important. I felt overwhelmed in the past trying to work for two managers. It is difficult for engineers to say no when asked to do something more than is humanly possible.

Greg: What is the foremost challenge?

Keneisha: The application knowledge gained over the last 20 to 30 years resides in the minds of the practitioners. Getting knowledge documented is not straightforward. At the last company I worked at, a Wikipedia type of program was implemented, but did not meet expectations. The effort was viewed as too time-consuming. The program needed an owner and advocate.

See also: Is a college education enough to get young engineers ready for the workforce?

Greg: Engineers are more interested in getting the work done rather than writing about it. Fortunately within Monsanto we were encouraged and given time to write technical reports and develop standards. We were even encouraged to publish, which is almost unheard for users. I was even allowed to write humorous articles such as, "Wally and the Beave Automate Reactor Startups," and books like How to Become an Instrument Engineer – Part 1.523. Companies were over-protective about knowledge, not realizing the application could be made generic and process details omitted. Today nearly every publication is initiated and most likely composed by a supplier, usually by someone responsible for increasing sales or market or providing services. The user groups do a good job of encouraging and achieving user participation in presentations. If only this could be extended to the writing of papers. Books by users are probably too much to hope for. I guess I was a strange bird in having written over 50 papers and 20 books as a user.

Stan: Given there is not much help in the literature on dealing with the diversity of industrial applications, how does the user get to the solution?

Keneisha: Sometimes a problem is solved trying multiple things that are forgotten by the practitioners. Often the most is learned from things that don't work. Since engineers are not asked to document the path to the solution, most of the knowledge learned the hard way is lost. A lot comes down to the culture of the organization.

Stan: There is a great concern that when the old timers leave, we will end up solving the same old problems and rediscovering the same old solutions when we should be using the increased flexibility and power of the advances in instrumentation and software to move on to the next level of achievement and process performance. How do you get people to share what they have learned?

Keneisha: Gaining access to this knowledge requires significant personal effort and persistence. What helps me is being not afraid to ask for assistance and finding key people within the organization. One person may direct me to another person. The ISA Mentor program has opened the door to sharing this experience with other new engineers, getting non-proprietary solutions to general problems and gaining knowledge from the leaders of the program by their articles, books, columns and posts.  Twice a month, there are posts on Control Talk Blogs and ISA Interchange Insights that are like white papers, but more extensive and less specific to a supplier.

Stan: How do you learn about automation system details?

Keneisha: The supplier does a good job of providing courses and user group meetings.

Greg: In the engineering technology department where I spent most of my career, I had access to the best minds and got to learn about the process and the application and explore and prototype solutions by the use of dynamic simulations focused on specific unit operations. These simulations were eventually used to check out the solution in the distributed control system (DCS) by means of a virtual plant using the actual DCS configuration and operator graphics. How do you find and test solutions?

Keneisha: We cannot experiment in the plant. You must go to the solution directly. To gain experience and knowledge, simulation labs are extremely helpful. This should start in the universities with more extensive collaboration between the universities and the suppliers of automation systems. This is a "win-win" opportunity for industry and academia. These labs coupled with intense internships helps get graduates familiar with the terminology and systems, and started in the right direction. The internships at refineries helped me to learn a lot about what tasks and skills are needed.

Stan: How do you get the necessary attention to your solution?

Keneisha: When I have a solution I may need to repeat the solution several times. This is just the nature of things. The degree of difficulty depends upon the plant culture.

Greg: I have had the privilege of working with many talented women over the last 30 years. Many moved on into other professions that took advantage of their better social and communication skills. With Keneisha's knowledge and communication skills and Jamaican accent, I could listen to her all day. In fact, think I am going to put some Bob Marley on while I do the Top Ten List. Do you work with many women on the job?

Keneisha: I would like to see more women in my profession and as practitioners in general at the division level and in the plants.  

Stan: While every person is an individual with special talents, skills, and approaches, the Control Sept 2014 article by managing editor Nancy Bartels "What woman engineers want" summarizes some of the general things women wanted in their professional lives.

Greg: For more on what new engineers face today see the Jan/Feb 2013 InTech article "Enabling new automation engineers" which won the John McCamey Award. In the meantime here are the Top Ten Pros and Cons of an Automation Career.


Top Ten Pros and Cons of an Automation Career

(10) Pro: Get to see the process come alive. Con: Have to deal with a process becoming too lively.
(9) Pro: Get to see thousands of valves in action. Con: Nothing in valve specifications prevents valve inaction.
(8) Pro: Get to apply the latest measurement technologies. Con: Piping and equipment specifications do not take into account effects of measurement location and installation.
(7) Pro: There are over a million possible diagnostics in the smart automation system. Con: There are a million messages on shutdown.
(6) Pro: You have very little competition for your job. Con: Nobody understands your job.
(5) Pro: There is incredible flexibility in the PID. Con: You need a translator to explain what the PID will be doing to the process.
(4) Pro: You get to be creative. Con: Many of the problems were previously solved, but not documented.
(3) Pro: You get to tune controllers. Con: There are over 400 pages of equations in a handbook on tuning rules and complete disagreement among the advocates. (See the white paper "So Many Tuning Rules, so Little Time.")
(2) Pro: There are lots of articles, books, columns and papers on process control. Con: How do you distill a million pages into what you really need to know?
(1) Pro: You are responsible for the window into the process and the means to affect the process. Con: There is little guidance on how to get a full clear view and the best effects.