Dining With Hall of Famers

June 13, 2003

Over 45 years of process control, the progress has been dramatic; this years inductees have contributed greatly

For the last three years, my favorite information source on process control and related matters has sponsored the opening dinner at the World Batch Forum. At these dinners, CONTROL has recognized a group of process automation professionals whose lifetime achievements are unique and noteworthy.

To date, nine individuals have been inducted into the CONTROL Process Automation Hall of Fame and, to a man (no women nominees as yet), they have contributed significantly to the development of our calling.

Process automation (process control with online digital computers) dates from the late 1950s when Tom Stout and co-workers from Ramo-Woolridge Corp. implemented the first system in Texacos Port Arthur, Texas, refinery. Prior to this, we had automatic (feedback) controls at the loop level, to be sure, and a few systems involved cascade networking of multiple loops, but supervisory level control was strictly manual. Forty-five years later, on a technical level, progress has been dramatic.

In this business, however, technical success and a couple of dollars will get you a cup of cappuccino at your local Starbucks. When I got my B.S. in chemical engineering starting salaries were about $4,800 (per year) and gasoline cost about 25 cents per gallon…or a years wages were worth about 19,200 gallons. By the way, drinking water was free or at least it came with the rent.

Now, a starting chemical engineer can buy close to three times as many gallons of gasoline with a years salary, and the gas is a much better product to boot (lower emissions and higher mileage). Of course, he or she has to buy drinking water by the bottle, chewing up some of the savings. Process automation, nevertheless, is a powerful force for good (lower costs, higher productivity), and similar stories can be related across the process industries.

Try to imagine the pre-automation industrial world. Valid, reliable process data was precious. It still is, of course, but it was much rarer, and more costly then. Strategic decisions were based less on solid measurements and statistical analyses and more on hunches and accumulated operating experience.

During the summer after my junior year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I worked in a TiO2 sulfate-process pigment plant. The titanium dioxide had to be extracted from ilmenite ore with fuming sulfuric acid, leaving a by-product weak acid (35%) iron sulfate solution that ultimately proved to be the downfall of the acid-sulfate process. The environmentalists went ballistic over this plant but the product, titanium dioxide, drove lead-based pigments out of American paint production and saved uncounted children.

My job that summer was part of a plant data collection force to ferret out the cause of final product quality variability that seemed to derive from the dry milling step. The Micronizers (centrifugal, autogenous steam mills) took aggregate coming from the calciners and produced pigment-quality powder. Feed rate and steam temperature were the two variables that plant management could manipulate. Our job was to record these operating data so that they could be correlated with subsequent pigment quality tests.

Checking the feed rate (twice a shift) meant diverting the incoming material into a bucket for 60 sec. and weighing it. Temperature (every hour) was a little easier but you had to keep the sight-glass clear of pigment. Anyone who has every worked around a Micronizer will never forget the experience--hot, dusty, and noisy. At the end of the shift, you were covered head to toe with pigment dust and could barely hear (OSHA would be horrified). The data collection effort was 24/7,six days on, two days off, change shifts (days to afternoons to midnights to days…) and extended over the entire summer.

The data collection effort was costly involving several man-years of skilled technician labor (I was making $300/month plus production bonuses and thought I was robbing the company) but was easily justified by successfully returning pigment quality to spec. With todays process automation systems, the same analysis could be completed in an afternoon by a process engineer working with a data historian program.

This years Hall of Fame honorees include two individuals who I must consider contemporaries. Professor Karl Astrom of Swedens Lund University and I both worked in IBMs Industrial Control Systems business at the same time, albeit in locations continents apart. We also shared an interest in the pulp and paper industry. Unlike the petrochemical industry, which had used automatic feedback controllers extensively, the paper-making industry had little experience with automatic controls because many key parameters could not be measured directly (yet), and time-constants in many cases made analog feed-back ineffective. Operator guide control in situations like paper grade changes allowed broke (off-grade product) and changeover time to be minimized by following a proscribed set of procedures mimicking the best operator.

Charlie Cutler and I both landed in industrial process control in the same year, 1961, he at Shell Oil and me at IBM. While our career paths never crossed, and the IBM Houston office always kept the New York crowd at a distance, we shared a friendship with Bill Biles, process software pioneer and entrepreneur CONTROL,Feb. 97, p90].

Lynn Craig, the third honoree at this years induction ceremony, described industrial careers as a three-step process: Learn, Earn, Return. Im stuck on Step 1, but others have successfully traversed the course. Craig has "returned" with a vengeance. A founder of the World Batch Forum, he more than any individual is responsible for its current status as a premier annual process control gathering.

Terrence K. McMahon

McMahon Technology Associates

135 Fort Lee Road

Leonia, NJ 07605

Tel: 201-585-2050

Fax: 201-585-1968

[email protected]

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