December 2008

Technology can help fill in for Boomers

EDITOR'S NOTE: Invensys Process Systems has been undergoing some change and Steve Blair, president North America for IPS, sat down during the North American Client Conference in Dallas with InTech Editor Gregory Hale to talk about moves the company has made and other industry issues. This is the second of two parts.

InTech: Baby Boomers are beginning to leave the industry; how will that affect you?

Blair: We see it as a good opportunity. One of the pieces in our portfolio is the training and simulation piece, with SimSci-Esscor. It allows us to capture knowledge. Quite honestly, in the refining industries, the ability to start up and shut down a plant exists in one or two guys because it happens so infrequently. But with the training simulators, we are able to capture that knowledge, and we are able to train people. In some ways, while we are losing people from the industry, we have to take the initiative to capture all of that knowledge and experience and then train the newer people coming into the industry.

InTech:  Can you truly capture the real knowledge that is walking out the door, like the guy that knows you have to kick the machine twice to get it going?

Blair: I can give you a specific example of a simulator we put in to a site in North France. It was part of a restructuring exercise the company wanted to do. The worker's council said we are not going to allow a restructure unless you put training in place to make sure the plant is safe to operate. We provided them with a high fidelity simulator that provided them with a series of scenarios that included how to shut down the plant. We came across a "fault," and after a lot of investigation, we found the plant wasn't running as it had been intended. So, the answer is yes, you can have a very high fidelity simulation that does scenario planning. It doesn't handle the kicking the machine twice issues, but that is an area where you can bring other areas to bear.

InTech: Do people use their technology to the max?

Blair: No. It has been my experience that people are learning all the time about the capabilities of the technology. I was talking to some clients, and they were talking about revamping their refinery. And talk about walking before you can run. There is an element in our business about getting a baseline in and then moving to greater and greater efficiency. We were talking about getting a roadmap and having a consultative discussion not about giving you this piece of equipment today; but what do you need during the lifecycle, and how we can continually improve and talk about the implementation process because clients do not go into a new start up and go from pneumatic control to full fidelity advanced process-you have to go through a series of step changes.

InTech: When you are talking to users in that consultative mode, are you finding them receptive to that or is it a big sell?

Blair: I think they are very receptive. Especially when they think we are not talking about our equipment, so discussion is about what you need to overcome issues.

InTech:  Do you find the plant floor is truly communicating from the plant floor to the top floor?

Blair: We are seeing more and more. The process side of the business is starting to integrate more with the IT side of the business. Rather than IT being seen as the great enemy of the process guys, IT is starting to be seen as adding value in terms of information that can be provided to the plant people to have the plant people run the plant more effectively. IT has enabled operations to be more cost effective.

InTech:  How much has the engineer's job changed and how will it change in the future?

Blair: I think you can parallel it to the semiconductor industry where as things become more sophisticated you get more standardization. That allows for more reuse of technology and a lot more standards of basic level, and hardware will be more standard and commoditized, and the real skill will be in the applications that are applied.

InTech:  Do you see engineers becoming more of a generalist or more focused?

Blair: I think it can go either way. We will see some specialized people bring some incredible value to applications to specific industries and specific applications. I think you will also see some generalists who are able to look at what is the best configuration and what is the best architecture, and they will be more system level designers.

InTech:  Do you find users trust the technology?

Blair:  I think automation is working. It is encouraging when you visit plants and you see operators and maintenance people all huddled around a system trying to figure out how to get the most out of it.