Q&A with Nagappan Muthiah

Nagappan Muthiah, serves as Functional Safety Discipline Technical Authority at Wood (formerly Mustang Engineering). In this role, Muthiah oversees all functional safety related projects delivered by the automation and control service line. Within ISA, Muthiah is a voting member and secretary of the ISA84 committee, reviewing drafts and providing comments on revised standards and technical reports. In January of this year, the ISA Standards & Practices Department recognized Muthiah as a 2017 award recipient for his leadership and dedication in supporting the work of the ISA84 committee and for his contributions to ISA-TR84.00.09, Cybersecurity Related to the Functional Safety Lifecycle.

Could you provide some background on your education (degree/s received) and academic areas of emphasis?

I earned an undergraduate degree in instrumentation and control from the University of Madras in India. I came to the US to pursue a master’s degree in control systems engineering from Oklahoma State University (OSU). At the time, in 2002, this was a unique program offered by OSU, with options to select control systems-related courses from electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering departments. I developed an interest in process control, which led me to work closely with the professors in the chemical engineering department. After my first semester, I found an opportunity to work as a research assistant for Dr. Russell Rhinehart from the chemical engineering department. Under his tutelage, I learned about statistical filters and how to apply them in the world of process control. Having specialized in the concepts of process control, I was able to get a good head start when I entered the oil and gas industry as an automation engineer in 2004.

What initially attracted you to the field of automation (and specifically your selected field)...and when was it? Was there any specific thing that triggered your interest? 

During my master’s thesis, I would spend hours in the unit operations lab working on a pilot scale distillation column, testing the closed loop response of statistic filters. It was fun working in that lab, tinkering with flow control loop and seeing how the closed loop response behaved for various changes in PID tuning parameters and filter constants. This interest in process control drew me to work in the field of automation. As part of my research and coursework, I used Matlab and Simulink software, which had many parallels to today’s DCS. Hence, the transition from being a graduate student to working in automation was relatively easy. In the EPC world, the best part of working in automation is that we are the last ones to touch the system (after process, civil, mechanical, instruments). We take the systems to the field; install them, and support commissioning and startup. Helping plant operators getting accustomed with the newly installed systems provides a sense of accomplishment that we are making their lives easier

Please tell us about your current career responsibilities (specific position, company) and background, and area of specialty in automation.

My company, Wood (formerly Mustang Engineering), is a global leader in delivering projects, engineering and technical services to energy and industrial markets. I currently serve as Functional Safety Technical Authority within the automation and control service offering of Wood. In my role, I oversee all automation and control functional safety related projects. I work with our business development and marketing teams to help secure more functional safety related projects. I am active with various industry forums and regularly attend and present papers at user conferences. One of my job requirements is to watch industry trends, influence positive developments, keeping our client requirements and preferences in mind. There is always risk in the oil and gas industry. I look for ways to provide our clients the best value for their investments, helping them size their systems to meet their risk targets.

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

I am involved with the ISA84 committee as the voting member for Wood. In this capacity, I review the final drafts and provide comments on the revised standards and technical reports to ensure that the proposed changes are aligned with the needs of our clients. It is a great learning experience to understand the industry consensus on functional safety.

I also serve in the role as the ISA84 committee secretary, working with committee chairs, helping them keep track of voting members, and organizing our bi-annual committee meetings. I was active in the development of ISA-TR84.00.09, Cybersecurity Related to the Functional Safety Lifecycle. I gathered consensus from our company’s cybersecurity experts and presented our input to this report. 

I am currently reviewing questions for the ISA 84 SIS fundamental specialist exam, assisting the review team modify questions to ensure alignment with the second edition of ISA84/IEC 61511.  

How did you initially get involved in ISA ?

As an undergraduate student in India, I read ISA articles to understand how instrumentation and control concepts were applied in industry. During my senior year, I became aware of the OSU master’s degree program while visiting the ISA website. ISA helped me during the early stages of my career. I joined as a student member of ISA in 2002, and have never missed a renewal! After working in the industry for about five years, I was ready to give back to the student community. It was one of my proudest moments when my article, “Insight into real-world process control,” was published in the ‘Final Say’ section of November 2009 InTech magazine. The article provided some recommendations for new graduates entering the field of process automation.

What ways would you say ISA has benefited you?

ISA not only benefited me at the outset of my career, but it has continued to do so as I’ve matured into a senior automation engineer. ISA provides a viable medium for learning concepts that are generally agreed upon in the industry. I prefer to read ISA publications because they present information from a vendor-neutral perspective.

It is impressive that you recently received two awards from ISA’s Standards & Practices Department relating to your involvement on ISA-TR84.00.09, Cybersecurity Related to the Functional Safety Lifecycle and the ISA84 committee. Do you have any reaction to receiving the awards?

I was pleasantly surprised and honored when the ISA84 director contacted me to say that I had received two ISA Standards & Practices Department awards, one for my general service in the ISA84 committee and another for my help with TR09. I started supporting the ISA84 committee because it was an intellectually satisfying experience. In that committee, I meet with the best safety systems leads from operating companies, vendor organizations and engineering companies. It is always a great experience to be a part of these discussions, learning from each other, and capturing knowledge in ISA84 standards and technical reports. I feel proud to be an engineer as I attend these committee meetings.

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?

I would encourage them to read the article that I wrote five years of out of college, “Insight into real-world process control.” The article drives home the point that any changes you initiate must be supported by business justification. You cannot arbitrarily change things in the operating facility. In industry, almost all projects are performed by teams. Hence, in order to succeed in your career, you need to be a great team player and understand your associates, what they value, what they want, and what constraints are on them. You need their advice, direction, insight, and partnership.