Q&A with Jim Federlein

Jim Federlein serves as Principal Engineer at Federlein & Associates, LLC, an industrial automation and controls consulting firm he founded in 1991. He possesses more than 47 years of experience in industrial automation, specializing in establishing and documenting project expectations and requirements as well as project management, business management, standards development, and managing and coordinating multi-discipline engineers, designers, and CAD operators.

He is an expert in automation and control engineering—from basic instrumentation and control to plant automation and enterprise integration—across a variety of industries that include: chemical, food, microelectronics (clean room), primary metals, pulp and paper, consumer products, and nuclear energy.

A member of ISA’s Standards and Practices Board, Federlein has been intricately involved in the development of numerous ISA standards since the mid-1990s. He has taught and helped develop courses in industrial automation for well over 30 years, including 10 years devoted to ISA course improvement and instruction.

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?

I was in the military draft lottery of 1970 when I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and told I would likely be called to service before the end of the year. I had worked a summer job in the area at US Steel’s headquarters and the company, along with a few out-of-town companies, made me a job offer. Seeing no reason to accept a job out of town and move there only to be drafted later, I decided to accept the US Steel offer. I had worked in the company’s electrical power group that previous summer and found high power transmission work rather boring.

So, I simply asked what other opportunities they had; I figured it was only temporary anyway. They placed me in their “Power and Fuel” group, which handled all of the instrumentation and controls for steel mills. The more I worked in the field, the more I liked it. But, it proved to be a short term situation—not because of the draft (my number was not called) but because I was caught in a 500-person layoff in US Steel engineering six months after I started. At this point, I was very interested in the instrumentation and control field and began actively looking for jobs in the field. It’s where I’ve been ever since.

What has been most rewarding to you over your many years in your career?

What I have always liked most about the field of industrial automation are the challenges you encounter. There are challenges relating to both training and technology.

The Training Challenge

While based on fundamental sciences, industrial automation is not like other fields (electrical, civil, chemical, etc.) where one can go to a wide variety of colleges/universities and receive a degree. It is difficult to find four-year schools offering courses in industrial automation, and it’s even more difficult to find any offering a degree in the field. As a result, people finding their way into industrial automation come from other fields, such as electrical, chemical, and mechanical engineering. They obtain industrial automation-specific education on the job through mentors, vendor seminars, and continuing education (such as courses offered by ISA). This all means that people working in this field are really interested in it because they must make the extra effort to seek out and avail themselves of additional education and training.

The Technology Challenge

Compared to many other fields, industrial automation seems to have undergone a larger change in technology over the last 75 years. When I began to work in this field in 1970, pneumatic instrumentation and controls were still being used but electrical/electronic instrumentation and controls were starting to be developed and applied. The failures of the initial applications of computers in industry were recent memories. This fostered a reluctance to introduce new applications. There was process control but very minimal real “automation” during this time. Today, basic industrial automation involves numerous computers—from those operating control systems to the microprocessors in field instruments. The technology in our field is ever changing and evolving. Application of that technology requires both an understanding of the technology and an understanding of the industrial process in which it is being applied.

You have a very lengthy and distinguished record of ISA service and involvement. Could you outline your different types of engagement…in standards development as well as teaching and course development?

I have been involved in standards development with ISA since around 1996. Specifically I am:

  • A member of the ISA Standards and Practices Board (since 2011).
  • Chairman of ISA105 (since 2008).
  • A voting member of ISA 20 and ISA5.7.
  • A member of ISA101, ISA5.1, ISA 5.6, ISA18
  • The ISA USA Liaison to IEC SC 65E WG2 (IEC 61987) and to IEC SC 65E WG3 (IEC 62381, 62382, and 62337)

From a training perspective, I was an ISA instructor for about 10 years. I taught the following ISA courses.

  • FG07 Introduction to Industrial Automation & Control
  • FG15 Developing and Applying Standard Instrumentation and Control Documentation
  • TC05 Tuning Control Loops
  • TC10 Loop Troubleshooting (using the trainers)

In addition, I developed updates and enhancements to these courses. I also developed and taught customized versions of them, including preparatory instruction for the Certified Control Systems Technician® exam, for certain companies on behalf of ISA.

Outside of ISA, I have been developing and teaching courses in industrial automation since the mid-1980s. It began with continuing education evening classes offered by the Pittsburgh Section of ISA at Point Park College for about 10 years and has continued to the present through customized courses for various companies.

Could you explain about your participation as ISA105 Chair …and how you became involved in that? What is the importance of managing calibration in industrial automation and control from a layman’s point of view?

Back in 2007, through one of my consulting clients, I became aware of three new IEC standards dealing with the testing of automation systems (IEC 62381, IEC 62382, and IEC 62337). I proposed to the ISA S&P Board that we form a committee to review and consider ISA adoption of these standards. Since it was my proposal, I was asked to serve as chairman, which I accepted. At that point, the ISA 105 committee was formed. The committee liked two of the IEC standards but felt they could be better organized and enhanced with additional content. So, the committee proceeded to adopt “modifications” of IEC 62381 and IEC 62382. ISA modifications of these IEC standards (ANSI/ISA-62381-2011 and ANSI/ISA-62382-2012), which included these improvements, were approved and published as ANSI standards in 2012.

These two standards are very important to industrial automation. They provide guidance on the testing of control systems to confirm operational conformance to their specifications. Testing of control systems has been performed for many years but, until their adoption, there were no industry standards that provided guidance on planning and conducting such tests.

In 2012, after ISA105 had completed its work on the IEC standards, a proposal was made by Leo Staples (a past ISA president) to the S&P Board for ISA to develop a standard on instrument calibration programs. The S&P Board extended the scope of ISA105 to include this work and the committee began to develop a recommended practice on calibration. As a result, ISA-RP105.00.01-2017 was published in 2017.

This recommended practice provides guidance on developing and maintaining calibration systems for industrial automation systems. Every industrial company with an automation system has some form of a calibration system—ranging from just enough to keep the plant running to maintaining all equipment at its designed level of operability and accuracy. But there was no documented, industry-recommended practice on how best to develop and maintain a calibration program. This ISA recommended practice provides that needed guidance for companies to establish a new calibration program or to improve an existing one. Accurate, reliable, and repeatable operation of all components in an industrial control system is vital to maintaining the safety and reliability of a facility. Because specific criteria of calibration systems can vary from industry to industry and company to company, ISA105 chose to develop a non-mandatory recommended practice providing general guidance rather than a mandatory standard providing specific requirements.

How did you initially get involved in ISA?

I became involved in ISA when I worked at a company called Mobay (which has evolved over the years into two companies, Bayer and Covestro, today). My manager was involved in local and regional ISA activities and strongly suggested I join. In 1976 I joined ISA having no prior knowledge of the organization. Obviously, I consider ISA a very valuable organization as I have remained a participating member ever since.

What ways would you say ISA has benefited you?

ISA has benefitted me in numerous ways. I outline them below.

  • I begin with ISA’s vast technical resources in industrial automation, including books, standards, and training. Over the 42 years that I have been a member, I have taken advantage of all of these resources. I’ve purchased technical books, attended training sessions, attended symposiums and shows, used ISA standards, subscribed to ISA publications, and participated in local section events.
  • Teaching ISA courses has helped further develop my teaching and interpersonal skills. Also, I found that I increased my knowledge in the process—whether it was preparing to teach a class, finding answers to some student questions, or working on course improvements.
  • Participating in ISA standards development has allowed me to share my knowledge and experience and given me a voice in the development and improvement of industry standards in our very specialized field.
  • Participating in ISA has allowed me to network with other professionals in industrial automation, which in turn afforded me additional personal and professional growth opportunities.

It is very impressive that you’ve been formally recognized by ISA’s Standards & Practices Department for your contributions. Why do you feel volunteering on ISA S&P Department committees are important and valuable…both personally and professionally?

The award I received in 2011 at ISA Automation Week in Mobile was in recognition of my contributions as Chairman of ISA105 and for proposing, leading, and completing the adoption of the two modified IEC standards on testing. It was an honor to be recognized for that effort.

Volunteering to work on S&P department committees is a win-win. The committee’s work is enhanced when more members participate (ISA develops “consensus” standards.) and the individual members learn and grow as the result of participating in the process. (There is a difference between being a “member” of a committee and a “participating member” of a committee. I am referring to the latter.) I have found that if I actually participate in committee activities, the reward is that I always learn something in the process.

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?

In the specialty field of industrial automation, to be successful the individual must always be in a learning mode. We must acquire knowledge of our field that is not available in college. Additionally, as a very technology-dependent field, the technology we use is constantly changing. Those who acquire the additional knowledge and remain current will distinguish themselves from others. Knowledge is power. But, as important as knowledge is the ability to communicate and relate to others. Personal interaction skills are essential tools in a professional’s toolbox and they’ll definitely play a role in a person’s success. Find a profession and a job that you like, that excites you—where you look forward to going to work—as all that you do will be easier and more enjoyable. I have always enjoyed my work in industrial automation.

I would also recommend obtaining a professional license or certification. It may or may not be required for your specific position, but it will definitely distinguish you from others and be a positive influence on your career. I obtained my Professional Engineer license in 1976 and, while never a requirement of employment, it made a difference on numerous occasions. Licensure/certification is worth the extra effort.