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Attending last week’s ISA Expo in Houston was like attending a funeral for a friend.

The aisles were filled with old friends, people I work with every day, and people I haven’t seen in 20 years. While it was great to see everyone, there was a sadness in the air, as we all realized this was, in all likelihood, the final ISA Expo.

ISA leadership, in the form of past president Kim Miller-Dunn, announced rather unceremoniously that next year ISA would hold a completely different sort of event. The large trade-show style event would be gone. While she said the purpose was “to better serve our members “, it seems clear that ISA was primarily trying to stop the financial bleeding.

The ISA Expo is horribly expensive to run. At the cavernous Reliant Center, this year’s show was almost tucked into a corner. It feels like annual attendance has dropped every year since the 2001 ISA Expo was struck by the 9/11 tragedy. By some estimates, attendance this year was down 40%.

Next year’s ISA event (it’s hard for me to call it an Expo) will be held at a hotel in Houston, limited to 10,000 square feet of exhibit space. Attendees will pay $900 to $1000 to attend a two-and-a-half day technical conference. No free admissions to the exhibit.

This format, which is targeted at higher-level decision-makers, will admittedly isolate the majority of ISA members – plant-level technicians and engineers. Vendors from smaller companies also appear very disappointed.

I’ve been attending the ISA Expo for over 20 years. It really is like losing an old friend. In the end, I found myself going through the classic stages of grief:
* Denial – Are they really going to kill the show?
* Anger – Don’t they realize this will hurt us, the members?
* Bargaining – Maybe we can get them to expand the new format…
* Depression – What’s the point of finishing the show today?
* Acceptance – Well, in many ways it was inevitable…

The trade show format seems a bit of an anachronism. Most people simply do a Google search to get more info. Nobody wants to travel. So, indeed, the time has come to say goodbye to the old ISA Expo. So long, old friend…we had many great years together.

Are you aware that there is a movement to formalize the Automation field as a recognized profession? In fact, the U.S. Government is actively involved. If you want to be a process control guru, you should definitely find out more about this group! Read on…

Yesterday, I attended a webinar jointly presented by the U.S. Department of Labor, and an industry group called The Automation Federation. These two groups have been actively working to develop the Automation field as a recognized profession.

Why? Because there is a shortage. A shortage that will continue to grow with time if we do not actively recruit, develop, and retain skilled people into this profession.

At this point, the primary focus has been on the development of a “Competency Model”. This is basically an outline of the skills required to be competent in the field. With a good competency model in place, the thinking is that:
* Colleges and Universities can develop curricula
* Businesses can identify career paths, job descriptions, and training needs
* Individuals can identify their own career and training needs.

The Automation Federation, www.automationfederation.org , is a consortium made up of ISA, World Batch Forum, OMAC, and WINA members. Direct leadership from some industry sponsors is driving this effort forward. For example, Paul Galeski, CEO of Maverick Technologies, was a presenter in the webinar. Maverick is a large system integrator based out of the St. Louis area.

You can get more information about the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration via the following web site: www.workforce3one.org/

The work is just starting. There is a lot of heavy lifting to be done. But, this effort has momentum, and everyone in the automation career field stands to benefit. Please get involved. Your profession needs you!

Get ready to boost your process control skills again. The Engineering Toolbox has some great online tools, to help you become a better process control guru. This includes tools for:

  • Control Valve Sizing
  • P&ID’s
  • Instrument Selection
  • Unit Conversions
  • Many More

Oh! And it’s free! Follow the link below to get a look at it yourself:

Engineering Toolbox Process Control Tools

Ah, summer! Time for days at the beach, relaxing with family. Take some downtime around the house, order take-out food, and let teh laundry go for a few days. It feels to good that we don’t have to be “in control” all the time.

But what about your plant? Can you afford for it to not be “in control”?

It may surprise you to find out that, in a typical plant, 30% of control loops are running in MANUAL. That is, they are not “in control” at all. Any upset that comes along passes right through!

This can lead to losses in efficiency, and greater potential for safety or environmental problems. In fact, control loops left in manual have been found at the root cause of several industrial disasters.

Should you run out to the plant, and force everything into AUTO? No, no, no!! Control Loops in MANUAL are more of a symptom than a problem. Usually, the operator put the loop in MANUAL for a reason: The tuning was bad, the instrument failed, or there was a control valve problem.

As a good control guru, you want to be sure that your plant stays “in control”, even while you are out on vacation. Here are some suggestions:
1. Start by understanding the extent of the problem in your plant. Monitor the % of control loops in MANUAL using on-line tools, like Control Loop Monitoring.
2. For each loop, make sure you understand WHY it was left in MANUAL. Ask the operators. Then resolve the root cause issue.
3. Continue to monitor for loops in MANUAL. This is a very effective way to spot new problems when they occur, even if the operator forgot to tell you about it.

Want to become a better process control guru? How about taking a course at MIT…without leaving the comfort of your own home!  For free!!

I’m not kidding: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has put quite a bit of course material online, including these:

  • Control of Manufacturing Processes
  • Modeling Dynamics and Control
  • Dynamics and Control
  • Introduction to Robotics
  • Mechatronics

You can see videos, download course materials, and hear podcast lectures.  There is NO CHARGE for this service.  However, you can make a voluntary contribution to MIT  if you find the information valuable.

Here’s the link: MIT’s On-Line Courseware
Check the Mechanical Engineering section first…many controls courses are listed there.

I highly recommend that you try some of these courses.  If you find them worthwhile, please consider a contribution.  This type of high-quality on-line material is exactly what we need, to hone our skills and become better process control gurus.

While automation engineers are knowledgeable in the technical aspects of the project definition and justification, we are sometimes found to be lacking in business/finance/management skills.   In fact, one of the best ways to leverage your process control capabilities is to learn to measure, document, and communicate in business terms, rather than technical terms.    My friend Peter Martin at Invensys has written a book “Bottom-Line Automation”, published by ISA, on this topic. If you want to become a process control guru, this book is a “must read”. See this book in the ISA On-Line Book Store. (No, I don’t get a commission…yet!)

You may also be interested in these white papers (Free, but registration required):

The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Controls Engineers

and

How Control Engineers Can Deliver the Most Value

It may not be what you want to hear, but business, communications, and finance are often our weak spot. If we can develop these skills, we’ll have a much better opportunity to get funding for the projects that we know can help the company’s bottom line. After all, it will be far easier for you to learn these skills than it would be to teach process control skills to the finance department!

There’s an incredible amount of information available on-line.  Recently, I have seen a number of newsgroup posts by engineers and students looking for “free application advice”.  Their requests elicit some responses from well-meaning engineers, replete with references to Wiki’s and other on-line information sources.

It’s tempting to think you can learn everything “on demand” by reading Wikipedia, and maybe throwing in a few searches on Google.  But you should be careful.

Let’s see how this works for some simple topics…

For PID Control, you can get this page on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PID_control#Loop_tuning

An impressive table of contents, a mix of theory and practice.  A few good primers.  But look a bit closer.  There is not even a mention of PLC or DCS platforms.  No actual equations for tuning.  No real discussion of algorithm selection.  In other words, all the practical aspects of process control are missing.

Here’s another topic: Control Valves.  A search on Google turns up the Emerson (formerly Fisher) Control Valve Handbook.

Click to access cvh99.pdf

This is an incredible resource.  A complete copy of the famed Fisher Control Valve Handbook, the “Little Black Book” of Control Engineers, almost 300 pages, on-line, for free!

But here’s the rub…To use this great resource, you’re looking through 300 pages of information.  I don’t know about you, but I’m old-fashioned, and like to keep a printed copy close at hand.

The point is, application of process control requires in-depth knowledge, mixed with practical experience.  Sometimes (as in Wikipedia), you only get a cursory overview.  Sometimes a Google search will turn up a real gem, like the Control Valve Handbook.  It’s up to you to dig in deeper, to sort through the theory and practical aspects.  Often, you will only develop the practical understanding by doing the work, and by learning from experienced engineers.

To become a process control guru, make sure you know how to leverage online information sources, and when to discount them.  Make sure you know when to call in someone with more experience.   Make sure you know when to invest in formal training.  You can’t find everything on the web…and what you do find can be of dubious quality.  An in-depth resource requires in-depth study.

Don’t be fooled into looking for on-line shortcuts!  If you want a simple, quick answer to a simple question, then Wiki-style resources might just work.  But if you need to solve an in-depth problem, then you need to make sure you have access to both in-depth materials AND practical advide and experience.

A guru always stays up to date on best practices. Are you keeping up with the best practices of the process control industry? In this blog post, we’ll look at some resources to help you stay current.

Let’s face it – “Process Control” is a huge field. You need to keep up with standards for instrumentation, documentation, electrical codes, control theory and application, hardware, networking, security, and dozens of other topics.

So how do you know where to turn? Luckily, there are some excellent resources to keep you pointed in the right direction. Some of these are “official”, and others are more informal. But all are very informative, and will save you a lot of work. Here’s a sampling of some of the best on-line resources for best practices in process control:

Best Practices in Process Control

Reference Link Description
Process Industries Practices for Process Control http://www.pip.org/practices/pc/index.asp A treasure-trove of best practices for the process control professional. Whether you need guidelines for purchase, selection, or application, you’ll find it here. Most are available for purchase at a reasonable fee. Or, your company can get unlimited access by paying the $25K fee. There are less expensive trial memberships available. They even offer a Sample Guideline for Application of Control Valves for free.
ISA ISA Standards Includes many commonly-accepted standards for instrumentation and automation. ISA’s standards are good for topics such as documentation, test procedures, batch control, and security. They have also harmonized with a number of other agencies, such as ANSI. As a “standards organization”, some of these documents can be a bit abstract. Not as concrete as the application guidance docs in the PIP. However, you can’t beat the price: If you are an ISA member, you can download ISA’s 150+ standards, absolutely free.
IEEE IEEE Standards Web Page IEEE standards are widely recognized. Like ISA’s standards, they are not always directly applicable as a best practice. However, there are IEEE standards for most all hardware-related issues, as well as many software issues on process control. Finding what you want is a bit difficult, however.

During tough economic times, everybody including your employer, tries to cut back on costs. Suddenly, there’s no money for projects, training, or travel. What can you do?

Of course, you can start focusing on some internal improvement project…things that you can accomplish without needing a lot of cash. This might include some things that you’ve overlooked for a while, such as:
* Control Loop Tuning
* Alarm Management
* Training Other Employees
* Updating Documentation

You might also keep in mind that there is a cost associated with “doing nothing”. Eventually, this sort of thing will catch up with you. What can you do?

Learn to make a “pitch” for a key project. Make sure that your management understands there is a cost to doing nothing. Show them how spending a little will save a lot. You might be surprised. Some companies have special budgets, specifically for “Hi-return, low-expense” projects. If you can tell a compelling story, you may be able to get access to these funds.

Draft up a short study, showing the cost and benefits of the project, as well as the cost and benefits of doing nothing. Try to quantify everything in terms of economic value wherever possible. Then take this to your manager and make your case.

Even when money is tight, most companies can find funding for projects that deliver a high value.

Let’s be honest. As a process control guru, you can get a little too focused, sometimes. So it pays to take a look at some things that are a bit outside your field, so you can have some better perspective.

One of my favorite sites for looking at new and upcoming technology is Ted.com

Here are a few example links:
First, a great way to display complex and shifting data:
Great data visualization.

A new type of touch screen:
Cool Screen Demo.

You can probably see how these tools could be used in the future for process control. And now something purely for fun. Skip ahead to about 6:00 minutes for the good stuff:
Wingsuit Jumping. About as close as it comes to flying.

Enjoy the chance to expand beyond the routine of process control.

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