Challenges of being an I&C lead engineer – One man’s opinion
By Mike Laspisa
I enjoyed being an instrumentation and control (I&C) engineer and collaborating with all available resources in completing assignments, often asking for help from vendors or other engineers. That said, I have witnessed a decline in the quality of work in many areas of I&C engineering in the past 10 years. In my almost 40 years of experience in the I&C discipline, I have observed changes in instrumentation and control engineering and the shifting of engineering to vendor inside sales forces. This has affected the quality of measurement and control device specifications in the past 15-20 years. Also, reduced training budgets in engineering firms have resulted in younger I&C engineers who are not as knowledgeable as they should be to be effective. Some old work standards and methods seem to have gone by the wayside in today's engineering world.
I created a list of challenges that an I&C lead engineer faces that might help a younger engineer:
- Proposal and budget preparation. This is sometimes frustrating, because the task "hourly factors" are not always known or transferrable from project to project and the time frame given is usually less than desirable. The "deliverables" should be identified, and for the most part can be selected from the work breakdown structure-based estimating forms.
- Multitasking on one or more projects. Keep organized and make/update "to-do" lists either daily or weekly as necessary. Many fail at this and wind up with a lot of half- or almost-done tasks.
- Working with the varying levels of client I&C involvement. Be open minded about the control system. Concentrate on the hardware and software functional requirements. The same is true for the I&C devices. Stay with quality manufacturers. Yes-cost is a factor. However, performance and installed life costs are more important than the lowest initial cost. It is also true that a project has a finite amount of funds, and sometimes sacrifices have to be made. Use client-approved vendors and plant standards when available, but be open to looking at new technology as well.
- Resist the temptation to send out unchecked or incomplete work. There are many pressures, and we have to count on other team members to complete their assignments. We have to delegate but are also responsible for the end product. Know your team members' strengths and weaknesses. Provide extra monitoring and checking where required. It is tough to tell your boss or PM that you might miss a deadline. Maybe you can issue the document with holds or partial instrument bid packages if they are representative enough to get a bid and select the vendor.
- Do not blindly accept the process data provided for measurement and control devices. Work with the process department to make sure you are using good data. Good measurements, and properly sized final control devices, are the keys to good control loop performance and flexibility.
- I&C device specifications are about more than just filling out datasheets. The end user is paying for engineering and experienced device specifiers. It is OK to review device applications and required accessories with your quality vendors. It is not OK to leave the majority of the fields blank or with an asterisk for «vendor to furnish». I have seen more than a few datasheets using this approach with missing or misleading information. The vendor can only work off the information provided on the datasheet without the benefit of a piping and instrumentation drawing or pipe specification.
- Accurate reporting is a pain. Juggling hours sometimes is a necessity. Try to be fair to both without worrying about the last chargeable hour. It does not help anyone to make it just "look" like everything is on schedule or on budget.
- Total quality improvement programs are about more than just taking 10 minutes to complete a checklist. Sometimes it seems that it is only an exercise done by lead engineers at the last minute. Interdisciplinary checks require time in the design schedule that is rarely taken into consideration.
- Project teamwork includes the other disciplines. Work with the other leads. Be aware of their needs and how you are going to support them. We have a natural tie with electrical, but piping design also requires I&C input and review.
- Speaking of electrical, on any given job the technical strengths of the electrical and I&C leads will vary. Work out the overlapping technical design issues: motor control (including local control device requirements and intelligent MCCs), power distribution, grounding, communication cabling, etc. If there are different opinions, get the discipline manager involved.
About the Author
Mike Laspisa worked in the I&C discipline for more than 37 years before retiring in 2012. He started at an EPC firm learning the field and control devices while creating instrument indexes and project manuals. He advanced to specifying I&C devices and creating construction document packages/scopes and eventually moved to leading projects in a variety of industries. Laspisa was recognized by ISA as a 25-year senior member in 2009.
Proposal and budget preparation
Use the I&C Initial Project Checklist to develop the scope of deliverables and services when preparing your project proposal.
Download the checklist.
We want to hear from you! Please send us your comments and questions about this topic to