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Vestiges of ‘The Right Stuff’

March 8, 2023
Are we witnessing a transformation of human thought in process control? Will curiosity and intelligence dwindle due to the pervasive availability of Google, AI, ChatGPT and the pointless distraction of social media?

My Microsoft Word and Outlook applications are determined to help me out, offering to guess words for me or even craft complete sentences or email replies. To a lesser degree—at least today—my pocket computer (smartphone) apps are designed to help as well.

“Vestigial” refers to an organ or limb that has withered from disuse or natural selection, such as your appendix, coccyx or little toe. Are we witnessing a similar transformation of human thought? Will curiosity and intelligence dwindle due to the pervasive availability of Google, AI, ChatGPT and the pointless distraction of social media?

Decades ago, DMC (dynamic matrix control)—now typically called MPC (model predictive control)—became robust enough to be applied to massive and critical processes, primarily in the hydrocarbon processing and refining/petrochemical industries. These end users could justify the cost, which included embedded staff to deploy, commission and maintain the applications. That’s because of the immense return-on-investment (ROI) of large units. One was the refinery crude tower.

A crude tower is a huge “still” that boils oil to separate it into marketable products. While it’s not complex from the chemistry or physics perspective, controlling the distillation to produce on-spec distillates—jet fuel, kerosene, diesel and feedstocks for downstream units—is a challenge. Meanwhile, the fuel market is ever-changing and volatile. Meeting contracts, as well as opportunistic merchant purchases and sales, mean changes in crude rates and crude slates—which crudes are purchased to run—are routine.

An attentive operator, supervisor or process engineer typically relies on a mental “model” of how one should interact with the process. Even if your hands-on operator robotically follows orders and procedures, at some level there’s a human who provides advice or direction based on thoughts or beliefs about how the process works. Their thinking is rooted in experience, as well as learning and logic around how temperature, pressure and flow affect the throughput and quality of the distillates.

At some level—at least in days of yore—there were specialists in various disciplines who imagined how to debottleneck and optimize the process. One such imaginative individual was the controls expert, who sold the idea that multivariable model-based control could pay for itself is a couple years. The refining and petrochemical community had awareness of how pioneers such as Exxon and Shell succeeded, and many controls (DCS) upgrades were paid for on the backs of “advanced control” payouts. Decades later, many controls upgrades are now deferred because of the losses from taking controls offline, even as parts and expertise to maintain a DCS from the 1980s, become increasingly scarce.

A few individuals took note of an unanticipated side-effect of the gradually more pervasive MPC. When it was offline, they found their staff noticeably less adept at running the crude tower and other complex, highly interactive processes. These processes ran with little intervention under advanced controls.

Younger operators who succeeded those who had helped the controls person “train” (identify) the models used by the system didn’t know of life without the trusty MPC. There’s been awareness of this issue for decades, as Dave Strobhar of Beville Engineering notes in his article “Advanced Process Control; Is it the Operator's Best Friend or Worst Enemy?” (https://bit.ly/3Zs0CAq). He suggests management might challenge their operators to run a complex unit without MPC in the hopes of honing their skills, but few are likely to do so.

Meanwhile, operating companies are struggling just to find dependable individuals with a high school diploma and are willing to stick around long enough to know the process, which typically takes years to learn. Are you finding young people who wouldn’t rather “just ask Siri” or take Google’s word for it? While their spouses may be “video game widow(er)s” when they’re immersed in action-packed “Call of Duty” at home, their day at work is more like “Flight Simulator”.

Legend (Hollywood) has it, the Mercury astronauts insisted on a window for their capsule and some manner of flight control, rather than just being a big hairless ape shot into space. We don’t need cocky and daring test pilots running our process, but most plants still need thoughtful people—not robots—to look after their assets and the safety of the occupants. Let’s hope our smart device crutches and addictions don’t extinguish all ambition, curiosity and creativity.

About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

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