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The next generation of control

April 25, 2016
Nowadays, if you can carefully run a mouse through an engineering software package, you can graduate as an E.E., M.E., Chem.E. or Comp.E. and get right to work designing automation systems.
About the author
Paul Studebaker is chief editor of Control. He earned a master's degree in metallurgical engineering and gathered 12 years experience in manufacturing before becoming an award-winning writer and editor for publications including Control and Plant Services.

It used to require at least five years of university classroom and laboratory education for even the brightest high school graduate to learn enough about a field of engineering to be deemed worthy of hiring. Then years more of orientation and training before a company would trust your independent work (and you might earn a P.E.) It could take a decade for your company to turn a profit on you.

Nowadays, if you can carefully run a mouse through an engineering software package, you can graduate as an E.E., M.E., Chem.E. or Comp.E. and get right to work designing automation systems. When you run into something that requires specialized knowledge, you can tap a vendor’s experts or download a module. You don’t have to learn all the gritty details.

And apparently, lots of folks don’t. Our “Ask the experts” department prints only the more sophisticated and interesting inquiries. We receive many questions from people—who are making serious decisions in plants all over the world—that even I could answer, with answers that ought to be obvious to anybody whose read Control for five or 10 years.

In today’s world of easy access to information and outside expertise, and ever more knowledge embedded into engineering, design and control software, what do you really need to know?

This month in “Other voices," Cecil Smith (Process Automation Hall of Fame, 2009) talks about how undergraduate chemical engineering degree programs leave little room to teach automation and control. To better prepare graduates for industry, he suggests they get away from linear systems theory and LaPlace transforms, and focus on the time domain, PID and technology actually used in plants.

This year’s Hall of Fame inductees span the globe and come from very different fields, and neither had significant education in automation or control before graduate school. Both are proud of the exposure they’re able to give their students to industrial problems and applications, but lament the general disconnection between students and the real world.

One of the most competent engineers I know isn’t an engineer. He’s a physicist with a long career in manufacturing who picked up engineering as he needed it along the way. My MS in metallurgical engineering repeatedly fell short of his BS in physics when it came to understanding what was happening inside the magnets we were making as they were cast, sintered, formed and heat-treated. Some of that was because he’s just a lot smarter than me, but much of it was because he really understands the fundamentals, and the rest is easy.

Now both of us can be replaced by any bright kid with some software and the web. That’s because we’re moving into an age where even the highest education can be had through experiential learning—the on-the-job, as-needed training we used to reserve for the trades.

That same kid can do most anything else, and may have to. As automation entrepreneur and futurist Jim Pinto recently blogged, “Already, in today’s advanced world, it takes only about 8% of the working population to provide all essential needs—food, energy, transport, housing and basic utilities.”

The technical background most suitable for process control has arguably evolved from mechanical engineering (pneumatics) to electrical engineering to computer science, always with a nod to chemical engineering if you have the capacity to understand the process as well as the automation. As more of the factual knowledge, mathematics and logic become embedded in software and available as-needed on the web, what’s becoming the next “best engineering field” for process control? Data science? Business? Marketing?

Homepage image courtesy of chatchai_stocker at FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

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