August 2008

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Knowledge is king

School of Hard Knocks doesn't exist, engineers need training

Fast forward

  • Theory goes out the window when it comes to working in a plant.
  • Simply put, engineers need quality training, not just a two-day course.
  • Two issues facing the need for training are time and money.
 
By N.E. Battikha

When it really comes down to it, engineers graduate with limited, if any, knowledge of instrumentation and control (I&C) systems.

At best, they would have taken a course in control theory, which is something very rarely used in a plant environment. Whether they were graduates fresh from the campus and Saturday afternoon football games or experienced engineers, oftentimes they are thrown into the world of I&C with little or no knowledge and they have to perform immediately.

The problem is they just do not know the basics. Over the years, engineers have asked questions such as:

  • What is a 3-valve manifold, and why do we have them?
  • How does an orifice plate work? With a square root output-why?
  • How can I describe all this logic? In a Logic Diagram-what's that?

Worse, "experienced" engineers found themselves facing a ground loop problem because the transmitter and receiver had their signals grounded. The solution? They went back to the vendor of the receiver and asked to have the equipment isolated from ground. In other words, they wanted a modification to an off-the-shelf product. The cost of modifying the circuit boards on these fancy receivers-there were 20 of them-was astronomical. The "experienced" engineers and their supervisor had never heard of a loop isolator. Ouch.

The examples could go, but surely the message is clear. The problem does not totally lie with the engineers doing the work. Let's face it, they never got the proper training. The result of this lack of training is poor performance, longer times to design something, and more time from another person correcting and slowly training the engineer. This condition results in additional costs and delays. The costs occur because the engineering work is not done correctly, and delays happen because of the additional time needed to get things right. All of that means, in an environment of tight budgets and stiff competition, wasted money.

Next step

The solution to the problem is one of those easier said than done things. What an engineer needs is good training.  By good, there should be a program that covers the most common facets of the I&C world, not just a two-day course in control valves as an example.

Such a training program as a minimum needs to cover certain key topics. Other topics could add into the program to meet the needs of a particular industry. Key topics include:

  • The tagging of instruments.
  • An understanding of the basic definitions, such as accuracy vs. repeatability, range, set point, etc.
  • A review of the different types of sensors for analyzers, flow, level, temperature, and pressure measurement. This would cover their principle of operation as well as their advantages and disadvantages.
  • A description of control systems (PLCs, DCSs, etc) and control valves.
  • The implementation of alarm and trip systems with an understanding of safety shutdown systems.
  • The understanding of control loops (feedback, feedforward, etc.) and of PID functions.
  • The documentation typically needed in the world of I&C such as P&IDs, logic diagrams, loop diagrams, etc. Not just how to read them, but also how to produce these documents.
  • An understanding of the installation of all components of I&C.

As always, though, there are two main problems facing the need for training-time and money. Time is a problem because of the present economic conditions, where typically plants and engineering offices operate with a skeleton staff. It is therefore very hard for a manager to let an engineer or designer take a few weeks off for training. Money is also a problem because budgets are tight everywhere. Squeezing budgets has become a priority. The global competition does not leave much room for extra spending. In addition to the course fees, there is also the cost of traveling expenses.

Training forms

Training is available in different styles, each with its benefits.  Training can occur in its classical form of face-to-face in regular classrooms. This is the best form due to the availability of the teacher to answer all questions and due to the interactive communication between the students and instructor. This style of training also includes the hands-on type, using labs where students get to handle equipment. However, face-to-face teaching is relatively expensive.

Another style of training is the self-teach programs that are either available in self-teach books or from software loaded onto personal computers, some of which are interactive. This is probably the lowest in cost but without an instructor available to answer questions, it is up to the student to understand the issues and more important to have the self-discipline to proceed and complete the learning process independently. At the end, self-teach programs do not typically provide a certificate of completion.

Another form is on-line courses. This approach provides an instructor to answer questions, provides an incentive to finish the study program, and is relatively low in cost while keeping the student available at work during daytime working hours.

Where to go

Training is available from a few sources.  Here are the most common:

  1. Associations. One example is ISA, which provides a variety of short courses covering topics related to the world of I&C. In addition, ISA provides recognition as a Certified Automation Professional (CAP), presuming you have attained some criteria to qualify. This includes passing an exam and meeting certain qualifications. Additional info is available at http://www.isa.org/training-and-certifications/isa-certification.
  2. Vendors and manufacturers. Courses provided by vendors and equipment manufacturers generally focus on individual products they make or sell. Most major vendors provide such courses. Vendors' web sites should give a list of available courses. On course completion, an attendance certificate is given to the attendees.
  3. Training companies. These companies specialize in training and offer a variety of courses from a short two-day introductory course to I&C to a multitude of individual courses covering a variety of I&C subjects. It is important for the student to determine the extent of the available training and the expected benefit. It is obvious a two-day I&C introductory course will not produce an I&C expert; it is only a quick overview. Some of these courses are in a classroom, while some others are on-line.
  4. Universities and colleges offer a variety of courses ranging from master or doctorate degrees to on-line courses. If a person is interested in an advanced degree, he or she should search its availability on different university web sites. One thing to keep in mind is specifying instruments, designing control systems, selecting the correct control valves, and developing P&IDs, logic diagrams, or loop diagrams are topics not typically covered in masters or doctorate degrees. Yet, these are the activities required from the designing engineer.

On-line courses in I&C offered at the university level are rare, but they are available. They provide the advantages of on-line learning while at the same time ensuring the quality of education. Such an on-line program is typically followed by a certificate and CEU's from the university for having completed the course successfully.  Searching on the internet for such university-based on-line courses, may take some time. However, one course is:  http://collegeofcontinuinged.dal.ca/Continuing%20Technical%20Education/Certificate%20Programs/Process_Instrumentat.php.

The decision as to which training to take should be decided by the student and by a more I&C senior person that understands the scope to be covered. Some companies have a training program that would pay upfront for the training of its employees while others would pay its employees only after the successful completion of the course. Check with your supervisor or HR department. 

One thing a company has to remember is if you think training is expensive, try ignorance. That will definitely cost you more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

N.E. (Bill) Battikha is a registered Professional Engineer with over 30 years of experience in process instrumentation and control. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He is a practicing engineer and has generated and conducted Instrumentation and Control training courses for over 10 years at many universities in the U.S., Canada, and at ISA. His e-mail is at battikhab@yahoo.com.

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