Q&A with Patrick Flanders

Patrick Flanders
As Senior Engineering Consultant at Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Patrick Flanders, P.E., ensures the specifications of process instrumentation meet corporate standards, comply with international safety standards, and are aligned with industry best practices. A long-time officer within ISA’s Saudia Arabia Section, Flanders was elevated this year to the distinguished membership grade of ISA Fellow for his significant advances in I/O count reduction and diagnostics for safety instrumented systems in the oil and gas domain.

Please tell us about your current career responsibilities and area of specialty in automation.

I work and live in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where for the last 24 years I have served as an automation engineer within Saudi Aramco Engineering Services.  As part of a leading oil and gas company, central engineering organization, I provide support of both upstream and downstream operations.  Over the years, I’ve specialized in safety instrumented systems and electrical safety for instrumentation. 

By focusing in these areas, I’ve been able to address technical questions relating to the application of instrumentation used to measure flow, temperature, level, and pressure over a broad range of operations and projects. Over time, I advanced to the role of Senior Consultant. In this position, my scope shifted from specific issues related to instrumentation and control to one that provides systematic and consistent specification of process instrumentation per corporate standards, and compliance with international safety standards and alignment with industry best practices. 

For sure, the most rewarding and fun part of my work centers on the introduction of new and innovative solutions that have changed the status quo. Through partnership with field organizations and leading global suppliers, we’ve been able to achieve positive results in situations where existing solutions were not adequate.  In two specific examples, we introduced solutions that advanced the ability to functionally test emergency isolation valves and high integrity pressure protection systems. There is nothing like helping to develop systems that improve safety and the environment, and witnessing those systems being successfully deployed. To me, this is really what engineering is all about.      

Could you provide some background on your educational background (degrees received)?

My education really began before I even entered a university.  The grooming process that led me to become a future automation professional started in the small, Midwestern town where I grew up in the U.S.  I was an active inventor during my childhood, and my experimentations during that time laid the foundation for my first industry experiences during my internship as an engineering student.

The experience I gained during my summer internships combined with my formal engineering training led to full-time engineering positions after graduation.  Once out in the working world, my assignments covered a wide range of duties and locations, from head office and the oil field to petrochemical plants and mining operations at companies such as Peter Kiewit, Getty, Shell, Amoco, and now Saudi Aramco.

My industry experience and training built upon a diverse technical background that included two bachelor’s degrees in engineering:  a bachelor of science degree in mining engineering and a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. These degrees provided the broad technical base needed to launch a career in process automation.  I obtained both of my engineering degrees from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. I also hold a Professional Engineering license from South Dakota.

I was fortunate to have been mentored by experienced engineers and to have received focused automation training that I could apply directly to on-the-job problem solving.  Over the years, I’ve been able to draw upon my technical training and problem-solving skills to propose practical solutions to real-world problems and operational challenges.  It has been very rewarding to be able to apply my formal engineering training, expertise in safety system automation, and my personal commitment to workplace safety and environmental protection to a meaningful career in process automation.

What initially attracted you to the field of automation?

As touched on earlier, my interest in automation and specifically safety automation really started during childhood.  It may have been the influence of the space race program of the 60’s combined with the environmental movement of the 70’s, but I was drawn to a career relating to engineering and automation and one dedicated to protecting people and the environment.  At a young age, I identified with popular TV and movie characters in shows such as The Computer who Wore Tennis Shoes and Make a Wish, and dreamed of working as an inventor in product development. It was this interest that motivated me in high school and to study engineering in college. Once on the job, I dedicated myself to pursuing improvements to safety systems by applying advances in automation technology.  In addition, I worked on my own time on projects of special interest, hoping to introduce them when the time and place were right.

How did you get involved in ISA and what is your current level/degree of involvement in ISA (leader positions, section involvement, etc.)?

I joined ISA when I moved to Saudi Arabia in 1992. The company encouraged all instrumentation and control system engineers to support the local Saudi Arabia Section of ISA.  What I enjoyed about our local ISA section was the camaraderie with other instrumentation and control engineers.  However, I have to credit my wife, Colleen, for challenging me to become active in the local section as an officer.

In all, I served the local section as an officer for more than 16 years, several of those as president.  It was a lot of fun and becoming an officer was a very rewarding experience.  

How would you say ISA has benefited you?

I owe a lot to ISA. ISA offered a path to become active in my profession outside of normal working hours and the typical job assignments.  Our local ISA section gave me the chance to get involved as an organizer and as a leader—not just as a follower or spectator. As a professional organization, ISA provided a platform to professional growth, and to publishing papers, making presentations, and participating on expert panels both locally and internationally.  This type of involvement helps you develop a strong network of colleagues within the automation industry and outside of your immediate company.  It has built my confidence to do more and take advantage of opportunities to get involved in joint industry design projects.   

What advice would you give to other young professionals entering the automation profession?

One way to find meaning in your work is to connect with a cause that you feel passionate about.  I don’t want to diminish the need to pay the bills, but pay alone should not be your motivation.  Over the long term, if you can apply your skills in a way that solves problems you really care about, the pay, performance reviews, and promotions all become the natural byproducts of your accomplishments.

The automation profession offers opportunities to make a real difference in our world today.  Automation professionals are needed to apply new and emerging technologies that advance safety, protect the environment, and improve public health.  I’m optimistic about the future for automation professionals.  I see a growing demand for young people who understand the complexities of automation and can use that understanding to help solve problems. 

As globalization really picks up steam, there are going to be awesome opportunities.  My career within automation shows where a technical career in automation can take you geographically and professionally.  But get your tennis shoes on and have your passport ready!