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2020 Control Process Automation Hall of Fame: Penny Chen

April 8, 2020
Part 1: Penny Chen among four inductees to the Control Process Automation Hall of Fame

Read about our other 2020 Inductees: 

  • Duncan A. Mellichamp 
  • Ian Nimmo
  • Martin (Marty) Zielinski

From pioneering industrial autonomy to mitigating the risks inherent in large capital projects, the four individuals inducted into the Control Process Automation Hall of Fame this year have all shaped the practice of process automation, and the ripples they’ve already created will long outlast their own careers. All were enthusiastically nominated and confirmed by the current membership—and, I believe, in spirit by those no longer with us, including Charles Cutler who recently left us for greener, more optimal pastures.

Please join me in welcoming Penny Chen, senior principal technology strategist, Yokogawa; Duncan Mellichamp, professor emeritus, University of California Santa Barbara; Ian Nimmo, owner and principal, User Center Design Services; and Marty Zielinski, technology director (retired), Emerson, to the this esteemed school of very big fish.

Leading by passionate example

When Penny Chen came of age in the Peoples Republic of China, her pursuit of an electrical engineering degree with a focus on industrial automation was an unlikely choice. Few women were as yet enrolled in engineering majors at Central South University in Changsha, Hunan, but that did little to deter the younger of two sisters, whose parents repeatedly told her "Nothing should stop a girl from becoming whatever she wants to be. You must set your mind to it and work hard towards it."

That determination would also lead her across the ocean to pursue graduate studies in the United States. An MS from Northern Illinois University and a PhD from Northwestern University—both in electrical engineering—soon followed. Research in signal processing then neural network technologies landed her at the start of the millennium working on “intelligent networks” for Lucent Technologies, where the telecommunications industry’s IT/OT convergence was in full swing.

At that time, telecomm networks looked a lot like the process automation systems we have today, Chen notes. “Every systems provider had its own proprietary, Class 5 switches,” Chen explains. Meanwhile, VOIP was just starting to take off despite naysayers’ objections with respect to reliability (“five nines? No way!”), ability to support 911 services, and others. Chen even worked on Lucent’s first VOIP system, only to have a successful product launch mothballed when management feared it would cut into the company’s legacy business.

While Chen would soon leave Lucent, her passion for communications technology—especially the wireless kind—had been kindled. She teamed with two friends to cofound Broadwave, a start-up whose mission was to make it easier to integrate licensed cellular wide area network (WANs) with the emerging wireless local area networks (LANs) based on Wi-Fi technology. In retrospect, the Broadwave venture brought together two of Chen’s key passions: discovering and developing applications for new technologies, then streamlining the implementation of those technologies so that users could more easily benefit from them.

Soon after Broadwave’s technology was acquired, Chen joined Intel, where her next adventure was as a wireless network software architect then product manager. At Intel, Chen applied her ideas in Centrino Mobile Platform by establishing a new use case of “Simplified Network Selection Technology Usages" using EAP-SIM to integrated disparate wireless networks and deliver One Bill Roaming service in early 2005 and published a paper describing the application in the Intel Technology Journal. Chen also worked and convinced other partners from Microsoft, Nokia, CRS, etc. to work together under the Bluetooth SIG to establish the Simple Pair process in order to make Bluetooth easy to pair using more secure method to establish connection. This method has become part of the Bluetooth 2.0 standard.

It was at Intel in 2008, that fate—in the guise of a recruiter—intervened to bring her full circle to the world of industrial automation that she was exposed to as an undergrad. “The opportunity was with a company that was building some sort of wireless application for process control,” Chen says. “I realized that this was something that would have great influence on industry. Not just incremental, but a leap forward in how we do business.”

Chen leapt as well, to join Yokogawa. And since chairing a meeting of the ISA100 standards committee on day one of her new job 12 years ago, Chen has made an indelible impact on her colleagues and on the adoption of wireless communications in the process industry. Chen applied her knowledge in wireless backhaul for industrial automation. While different types of wireless technologies entered into the market space, especially industrial automation, she recognized that a variety of wireless technologies will have different sweet spots that are suitable for particular applications based on market needs and end users’ voice. Chen worked with Dave Glazer, director of Fieldbus Foundation, and with great support from the ISA100 chairman, Herman Storey and end users, the ISA100.15 Wireless Backhaul Networks Group was been established. This group had representatives from all of the major automation users and suppliers and established a technical report on “Backhaul Architecture Model.” This report serves as an end-user reference to wireless backhaul that is secure, easily provisioned and managed. 

At the same time, Chen contributed in ISA100.11a wireless sensor network for industrial automation. She led the ISA100 Wireless Compliance Institute through the years to establish the ISA100 Wireless Certification process in order to ensure the interoperability of ISA100 wireless technology. To leverage this platform, she is also leading the ISA100 WCI institute to make wireless easy-of-use one of the most important objectives for suppliers as well as end users. 

Chen has leveraged ISA as a platform to promote variety type of wireless technologies for industrial applications, especially ISA100 wireless and Passive Wireless Sensor Tag (PWST) technologies. Since 2004, Chen has been the ISA Communication Division Director-elect and the ISA Communication Division Director 2015-2017. Chen has been involved with organizing multiple ISA Conferences and Symposiums every year. She has also championed the use of wireless technologies for industrial application no matter whether that is ISA100 or WirelessHART. "The goal is to show the benefits of wireless technology, to push for more cost effective adoption, to quickly transition the more cost effective and open IP technology in order to make the industry plant more safe and productive," she says.

“She has done nothing but inspire me from her first day with us,” says Maurice Wilkins, executive advisor to Yokogawa marketing headquarters, and fellow member of the Process Automation Hall of Fame. “She drove ISA100 and the Wireless Compliance Institute throughout Yokogawa and became a key member of both organizations under ISA. She is now leading Yokogawa’s global robotics taskforce and once again inspiring the organization to support her.”

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Chen sees her new assignment, enabling the process industry’s shift from “industrial automation to industrial autonomy,” as having much in common with her work in wireless. “As humans we are born to flexibility and freedom,” she says. “We prefer to learn not in a classroom but by interacting with and moving through the world—and wireless makes that possible.” Similarly, there are a lot of tasks—particularly routine, boring and dangerous ones—that robots are better suited to than humans. But those robots have to have a net positive effect on human effort. “If tech is hard to use, no one will use it,” Chen says. “That’s what we are working on.”

About the author: Keith Larson
About the Author

Keith Larson | Group Publisher

Keith Larson is group publisher responsible for Endeavor Business Media's Industrial Processing group, including Automation World, Chemical Processing, Control, Control Design, Food Processing, Pharma Manufacturing, Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Processing and The Journal.

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