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

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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.

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