Get Out the Process Control Vote

Oct. 7, 2008
Society Could Use Some of that Technical Know-How that Process Control Engineers too often Leave Back at Work
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

It really can be hard to see the forest for the trees—or the alarms among the pretty HMI display colors. Logically, most of the engineers, system integrators, manufacturers, scientists and physicians that I’ve interviewed in recent years focus on highly specialized applications and disciplines. Most technical and scientific fields seem to push for answers to always narrower questions, whether it’s process engineers programming PLCs and configuring networks for ever-closer to real-time performance or hyper-specialized medical researchers examining CAT, PET or other scans for ever-teenier physiological problems and possible cures. God or the devil is in the details. I can’t remember which.

Unfortunately, when many technical professionals leave their plants, hospitals or academic institutions, they also shelve much of the intellectual inquisitiveness and rigor demanded by their jobs. Sure, it’s nice to mentally vegetate a bit, and mowing the lawn and washing the car don’t require technical know-how. Family members, non-work friends and neighbors usually don’t want to hear most workplace stories anyway.

Culture and politics and religion all demand severe levels of conformity for membership and certainly for any leadership roles. Like smart kids trying not to appear too smart in school, many technical professionals try to go with the flow and fit in. During normal times, if there ever were any, this behavior might be morally acceptable. However, there are some serious challenges facing our collective society that could use some of that technical know-how that too often gets left at work.

Many schools are desperate for technical mentors. TV-addled youngsters need creative outlets for their energies. School district and municipal boards—not to mention county, state and the federal government—often go begging for some level-headed leadership. Without some intelligent participation, the resulting vacuum all too often is filled by a host of lazy and destructive prejudices. Meeting no response or resistance, this resentment, fear, superstition and willful ignorance proudly goes mainstream. To quote statesman Edmund Burke, “All it takes for evil to win is for good men to do nothing.”

Now, I know you’re busy. I don’t know a good technical professional that isn’t hip deep in work. But you don’t have to run for mayor. Serving on a local school board or committee usually only takes a couple of afternoons or evening per month. Just attending one or two local meetings can be very helpful. Even writing letters has way more impact than many folks realize. I’ve seen it firsthand.

The usual elected or appointed knuckleheads and lobbyists begin to sputter and cough when a real voice of reason asks a few questions and speaks out. Heck, just make sure you’re registered to vote, check which candidates are most likely to help your community long-term, and then cast your ballot.   

Even more important, it doesn’t matter what side you’re on. I’ve observed that liberal and conservative labels tend to evaporate when residents get even slightly ticked off and fired up about solving a problem in their communities. Luckily, most specific budget, infrastructure, education, health-care and employment difficulties are very similar to process control problems, and so I think any control engineer’s input could help here. If you can tune a PID loop, then you can balance a budget—and avoid another Ponzi scheme, I mean, bailout.  

However, if you don’t participate, the goof-offs and lobbyists will think you’re asleep or don’t care and will continue to waste your community’s precious money and time. The fox would be a fool to stop raiding the henhouse as long as the chickens are silent and the farmer doesn’t object. The old “us” vs. “them” labels and the endless TV and radio bickering that follows are just part of the mechanism keeping most citizens too distracted and anesthetized to notice their hard-earned tax dollars being wasted. Process control engineers can remind them not to sleep at the switch.