1660316765865 Willnextgenworkersbeuptocaringforlastgentechhero

Will next-gen workers be up to caring for last-gen technologies?

Feb. 22, 2022
Hold the bus for sustainable skills

Imagine the next generation of digital integration technology arriving in our current plants. Will the champions of that effort be discouraged by our skills, tools, procedures or lack thereof? Perhaps there’s a chance early adopters of digitalization can avoid leaving their successors in the lurch. The old multimeter hasn’t been particularly useful for diagnosing digital communication issues, so it’s time we begin cataloguing and regimenting some rudiments for novices. Our workforce needs procedures that will enable them to solve 90% or more of the hopefully rare issues that might arise.

In the early 1980s, the refinery had numerous control systems that employed then-current electronic transmitters and controllers; they utilized current loops for communicating measurements and outputs. But as new process units were commissioned, young engineers were somewhat stunned to learn that instrument technicians rarely brought along a volt-ohm meter (VOM), let alone a digital multimeter for loop checking or troubleshooting. A few revealed they'd been issued pocket VOM’s like one might find at the auto parts store, but few had any training in how to use them.

Their supervisors could hardly be blamed for this technology/skills gap, as they'd risen from the very ranks which they were leading. They cut their teeth on “wind instruments” (pneumatics) and no one had made much effort to educate them about milliamps, volts, resistance or grounding. Adding to the dysfunction was an unfriendly rift between the plant’s salaried engineers and the crafts people, with familiar hostility and distrust between union and management. An extended contract dispute that climaxed in a months-long strike—during which the refinery continued to run at normal rates—had occurred only a few years prior.

“Golden handshakes” (early retirement incentives) for the mostly senior salaried members of the shop supervision paved the way for a new generation, who attempted to instill the understanding and troubleshooting skills needed for the “new” age of electronics. Training ensued, covering the rudiments of electronic control loops. But stubborn cultural norms and the protections of union seniority didn’t lend themselves to expanding physical and mental challenges, and the site continued to languish in the fair-to-middling quartiles of the Solomon study. Rather than turning over a new generation of more motivated and youthful technicians, the craft ended up with few takers. The shop backfilled with overburdened contractors supported by company-salaried supervisors, who were left to grapple with doing more with less. It’s a recipe for burnout where “doing less” wins out, and is not fertile soil for adventures into new tech.

We now stand at a similar cusp, where pioneers of digital integration are checking their 401Ks and pricing condos in sunny climates. When this decade is over, many will be more engaged with pickle ball than packets and bytes. Are we thinking about how our successors can keep existing digital networks alive? Dreaming we can direct yesterday’s Door Dash driver out to engage their gaming prowess isn't a winning formula for sustaining digital networks. We can use their tech though—like the movie camera in your pocket and YouTube—to begin capturing tips and procedures.

Let’s be cautious about deriving too much confidence from the relative ease of deploying home and office networks. When we combine disparate vendors’ devices on a shared network, they might not be as interoperable as our Cuisinart toaster and GE refrigerator. As new bus technology extends through the process plant, the hobgoblins of 20th century fieldbus will be lurking. Incorrect or inconsistent cable impedance, no terminator, too many terminators, water ingress, loose terminations—all have the potential to impact network reliability.

If your facility has a significant investment in digital integration, whether fieldbus, Modbus or proprietary networks, it’s time we started investing in measures to avoid a trajectory of decay. If you’re on the supplier side, it’s potentially the crux of future measurement and control spending. There comes a time when we’ll have gone to the well too many times, as management grows weary of investments whose value is never fully realized.

About the author: John Rezabek
About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

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