Q&A with Joseph Alford

Joseph Alford is an independent automation consultant and part-time university guest lecturer. He retired from a 35-year career at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co., after having spent the bulk of his career automating the company’s life science processes. He continues to be active in ISA, serving on the Intech Editorial Advisory Board and the 18.2 Committee on Alarm Management. He is both an ISA and AIChE Fellow, former Certified Automation Professional® (CAP®), an elected Distinguished Alumnus of both his alma maters, and a member of the Process Automation Hall of Fame. Alford recently received an award from the ISA Standards & Practices Department for his 2017 contributions to ISA-TR18.2.7, Alarm Management When Utilizing Packaged Systems.

Please tell us about your educational and career background and how and why you pursued a career in automation?

I received a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University in 1966. I then served two years on a Navy aircraft carrier as an engineering officer. In 1972, I earned both master of science and doctorate degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Cincinnati.

One of my favorite courses was process control with both the topic and the inspirational professor who taught it drawing me to the field. I had a passion for chemical engineering as well as electrical engineering and computer science, and process automation seemed a great way to combine all three interests.

I was then hired by Eli Lilly & Co. to help lead the automation of the company's life science processes. At the time, monitoring and control of life science processes was more art than science, with almost no electronic online instrumentation utilized, resulting in long delays between steps in batch manufacturing production while waiting for off-line assays on manually collected samples to complete.  I was challenged by management to change some of the art to science. This ended up being my career focus. I spent the early part of my career helping to lead the development, implementation, replication, and applications of the in-house process control and data historian computer systems that became standard in all of the company's life science development and manufacturing plants.

Later, online analytical systems (e.g., process mass spectrometers) and the use of artificial intelligence applications (i.e., expert systems and neural nets) were added to the process control systems, resulting in my receiving national technology awards from ISA and AIChE.  During mid-career, I spent 10 years heading the company's Advanced Process Technologies Group, and also served as the company's Chief Computer Systems Validation Auditor. I finished my career in Corporate Engineering, driving the use of several engineering best practices throughout the corporation (e.g., alarm management) that had been learned and utilized while automating bioprocesses and from having participated in ISA forums.

What are your current responsibilities as an independent automation consultant? 

Since retiring from Eli Lilly & Co., in 2006, I have pursued professional volunteer work (for technical societies and journals), give guest lectures at universities, and have worked part time as an automation consultant for several companies. My areas of specialty include: alarm management, computer system validation, failure modes and effects analysis, applying artificial intelligence, online analytical systems, modeling, and process control (especially for life science processes). I recently completed a 10-year term as a member of the Science Advisory Board for the NSF-sponsored national Engineering Research Center on monitoring and control of pharmaceutical processes involving particulates and powders.

Could you tell me how you are currently involved with ISA? 

I continue as a member of the InTech Editorial Advisory Board, having now served for 23 years. I’ve also authored several articles for InTech and co-authored the ISA book, Automation Applications in Bio-Pharmaceuticals. I serve on the ISA 18.2 committee and co-authored the ANSI/ISA 18.2 standard on Management of Alarm Systems in the Process Industries. I’ve also served on several committees developing technical reports for the 18.2 standard, co-chairing two of them. These 18.2 activities resulted in my receiving three different ISA Standards and Practices Department awards. Several years ago, after being elected as an ISA Fellow, I served a three-year term on the ISA Admissions Committee. I also became an ISA Certified Automation Professional® (CAP®) during the latter part of my career.

How did you initially get involved in ISA?

I became interested in ISA early in my career when looking for a professional society that had a major focus on industrial automation. ISA fit the bill. It helped greatly that I enjoyed and valued reading InTech as each issue offered relevant, interesting and easy-to-read and understand articles that were industrially (rather than academically) focused.

What ways would you say ISA has benefited you?

First, ISA publications, especially InTech, have helped broaden my education on instrumentation and control technologies and issues. It has also helped that ISA is an industry-focused (rather than an academically focused) association, so most of the activities it pursues are relevant to the industry I work in. ISA has also been the source of much of my personal network of professional contacts outside of my employer, which has helped greatly in expanding my view of the “big picture” regarding automation, as well as helped provide perspective and advice on subject matter areas that I work with (e.g., alarm management). ISA networking also has led to some post-retirement consulting opportunities. Finally, ISA has provided the means to help give me back to my profession that has been the basis of such a rewarding professional life. Mentoring young professionals, writing articles for InTech, and helping develop automation industry standards are ways I have had an impact beyond what I could do for my employer. These activities also have been a way to show thanks to the automation profession for providing an enriching way to support my family as well as providing many personal development opportunities.

It is very impressive that you recently received an award from ISA’s Standards & Practices Department relating to your involvement on ISA-TR18.2.7, Alarm Management When Utilizing Packaged Systems. Do you have any reaction to receiving the awards? Also, why do you feel volunteering on ISA S&P Department committees important and valuable…both personally and professionally?

As Jack Welch (iconic past CEO of General Electric) has published, one of the ten most significant attributes of a successful organization is its reward and recognition program. This is especially relevant to professional societies as almost all the work and contributions by members are done on a non-paid, volunteer basis. Also, receiving certain awards (e.g., Standards & Practices, ISA’s Douglas Annin award for process control) from ISA represents national and even international exposure for one’s contributions to automation, as opposed to receiving a local award from one’s employer. It has been especially rewarding serving on ISA’s Standards and Practices Committees as I have met many people from other industries (who are now friends and colleagues). In many cases, I’ve worked with these professionals to produce valuable documents (i.e., standards and technical reports) that have advanced the discipline of automation and provided guidance for companies throughout the world. As an example, the ANSI/ISA 18.2 standard, with a few modifications, has become an international standard through the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

Do you have any advice or suggestions to young automation professionals entering the profession? Are there things that you have learned that you might pass on…to help them better develop their careers?

As with most engineering professions, young engineers need to develop the ability to consider multiple perspectives when solving problems and designing systems, i.e., don’t focus on only a technical solution (as many engineers mostly do as students), but also learn to focus on what’s best for the business, e.g., perspectives considered should include economic as well as safety, environmental impact, failure mode effects and analysis, controllability, and supportability when making manufacturing plant recommendations to management. Company management seek engineers who are technically competent, but who also have the “big picture” in mind to help their organizations achieve success. After all, how many times have we heard that a project was a technical success but a business failure?