Why Chemical Engineering Studies Are the Right Stuff for Process Automation Engineers

Why this year's Hall of Fame inductees are all chemical engineers

By Paul Studebaker

Like the process control profession, the Control Process Automation Hall of Fame (HOF) membership has a wide variety of educations and backgrounds. The vast majority have an engineering degree of some kind, including electrical engineering, computer science, physics and others. But most of them are chemical engineers.

There's a long-running debate about what sort of degree is the best preparation for a career in process control. The automation systems themselves are chock full of electrical and mechanical devices networked to computers running specialized software. Their proper operation relies on algorithms that use process, equipment and business parameters to optimize quality, cost and efficiency, doing it safely and reliably. It looks a lot like electrical, computer, software and systems engineering. So why so many Chem Es?

This year, our three inductees are all chemical engineers (with doctorates), so I asked them how they came to specialize on control. They say it's not something they knew they would do when they got their undergraduate degrees.

Also See: The 2015 Process Automation Hall of Fame—ChemEs Sweep the Field

Don Bartusiak, chief engineer, process control, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, discovered process control as a doctoral candidate thanks to National Science Foundation funding of the Process Modeling and Control Research Center at Lehigh University. His dissertation topic was "On the Design of Nonlinear Control Structures by Reference System Synthesis: Applications to Chemical Reactors and General Dynamical Systems."

Armando Corripio, semi-retired professor, Louisiana State University, escaped Castro's Cuba to go to LSU. He took his bachelor's degree to Dow, where he worked on process control and attended night classes at LSU. There, he fell under the influence of professors Paul Murrill (HOF 2014) and Cecil Smith (HOF 2009), who persuaded him to pursue a doctorate. (His dissertation was "Digital Control of Processes"). The rest is history.

We understand what the process needs and wants, and we use control to do that.

Jim Downs, engineering fellow and manager of the Advanced Controls Technology group at Eastman Chemical, was well on his way to a better life through process engineering when he discovered he really liked to control the units. He went back to school and found the right balance at University of Tennessee, writing his doctoral dissertation on "Control of Azeotropic Distillation Columns."

These three chemical engineers went into process control because they found the right place (degree program and funding), the right people (influential coworkers and professors) or the right sort of work (running process units is challenging and satisfying).

"There's sometimes a view that you want a process control engineer who understands DCS, how to tune loops, control strategies," says Downs. "We're chemical engineers first. We understand what the process needs and wants, and we use control to do that."

Nowadays, it's widely understood that universities are not graduating enough chemical engineers. "The kids are bright and talented, but the numbers aren't there," says Bartusiak. "Chemical engineering is a follow-the-money story. The specialty was well-funded in the 1980s and 1990s, and it's nowhere near as well- funded now. So there are fewer students coming out."

Industry needs more chemical engineers in automation. "The process control community can do so much more with its insights into how to run a process or a plant for safety and productivity," says Downs. "We've been able to leverage control engineers by starting with the question, ‘How should we run this process?' Maybe automated, maybe not. Not just the specific detailed strategy, but why and how we should go about it.

"But when you broaden the question, you kind of need a chemical engineer. I appreciate people who are great at the tactics, but the value starts with process understanding. Tune the process, not just the control system. Know how the process works and tell how to run it."

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