The changing role of the control system engineer – Advanced technology and control system basics
By Michael McEnery
The rate of change for new technology in the world of control system engineering is staggering and can be overwhelming if you do not step back to see the forest for the trees. The role of a control system engineer (CSE) is changing with this technology and the cost of its implementation. Hardware and software vendors continue to develop products that are more cost effective-from both product cost and implementation cost perspectives.
Do not forget that a significant cost of a product is the time required by a CSE to implement it. And let's face it, we are well paid, particularly in North America and Europe. As cool as you might think the latest tool from your software vendor is, part of the reason it exists is to reduce your cost. Overall hours required for the development phases of automation projects (programmable logic controller programming, human-machine interface [HMI] programming, device configuration) have decreased drastically over the past 15 years.
Technology also brings opportunities for offshore system development, which further decreases the time CSEs are spending with program development. At the same time, new tools provide opportunities for CSEs to deliver even more value. Data historians; Industrial Internet of Things; data analytics; advanced process control; proportional, integral, derivative (PID) autotuning; and PID loop performance monitoring are all available to help CSEs save energy, increase plant uptime, reduce material costs, etc. But these tools have no value until they are put to work by someone who understands the processes being controlled. This places a stronger emphasis on understanding process control basics. It requires getting away from the keyboard and out onto the plant floor.
Control system integrators also have new opportunities for project management, design, and documentation. End users have fewer resources available for projects, and the people who are assigned have less and less time. But a successful project still requires someone to understand the process requirements in detail and to communicate effectively to the project team regarding design. Again, this goes back to the CSE having a strong understanding of process design and process control.
So, the next time you start to stress about a new version of an HMI or a just-released series of I/O modules, take a step back and make sure you are also acquiring knowledge about how the equipment you are controlling actually operates. And how it can operate better.