March/April 2010

PAKS committee gears up for Control Systems Engineer licensing

Who decides what a licensed Control Systems Engineer (CSE) needs to know?  Educators, legislators, industry? Envelope please … it is YOU, the practitioners, based on your employers' and clients' needs.

How are the knowledge areas determined?  Every six to eight years a Professional Activities and Knowledge Study (PAKS) survey is held by a sponsoring society.  For a CSE, this is the International Society of Automation (ISA), and it is done in conjunction with the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).  The last PAKS survey for the CSE was performed in 2001, and now it is time to do it again. 

The PAKS committee is under the Professional Development Department of ISA. The individuals (left to right) are as follows: Row 1 (kneeling): Paul Gruhn, Lyn Courson (Prometric), Brenda Tuley, Perry Grady, Weining Feng. Row 2 (middle): Randy Marek, Unberto Florez, Larry Wells, Debashis Sadhukhan, Don Brown, Randy Cooper, William Tsang. Row 3 (back); Bruce Martin (NCEES), Larry Barone, Nicholas Sands. Those not in attendance are Dan Evans, William Goble, Leonid Osetinsky, Franis Tan, and Gerald Wilbanks.

To perform this survey, the PAKS committee meets to review the control system specification framework, develop the survey questions, review the survey prior to release, review the results of the survey, and then review any revisions to the CSE Exam Specification.  The first exam under the new specification, which is called the Anchor Exam, is then assembled and tested.  After the Anchor Exam is given, a Cut Score Panel is convened.  The Cut Score Panel actually takes the exam, discusses the questions, and recommends a passing score to NCEES.  Once these tasks are completed, all future CSE exams will be referenced back to the Anchor Exam until the next PAKS survey is undertaken.

The purpose of licensing engineers is to protect the public.  Each state and territory controls licensing via the enactment of laws and rules.  One cannot call themselves an "Engineer" or offer "engineering services" unless they are licensed in that state where they are practicing.  The PAKS survey is the method used to help determine what knowledge and activities licensed engineers must know to be minimally competent.  The most complete determination of this knowledge and activities is when all practicing facets of our profession are involved and the committee overseeing the PAKS represents that diversity.

The 2010 PAKS committee is made up of 19 members from nine different states, six of which are in the top 10 states for CSE licensing. The members are experienced in the following industries:

  • Aerospace
  • Chemical 
  • Education
  • Food & Beverage
  • LNG
  • Oil & Gas (Upstream)
  • Petrochemical
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Polymers
  • Power
  • Pulp & Paper
  • Refining
  • Safety Systems
  • Steel
  • Textiles
  • Water & Wastewater

When the first CSE Specification was developed in the early 1990s, it was based on the role of the instrument engineer of that period. From one viewpoint, it was a world based on a renaissance engineer specification-one who could do it all. The framework was divided into the following:

  • Measurement
  • Signals and transmission
  • Final control elements
  • Control systems analysis
  • Control systems  implementation
  • Codes, standards, and regulations

Today, a CSE's world has evolved into one with many more specialists and fewer renaissance engineers. The exam framework also needs to evolve to meet current practice. One thought is to use the framework definition of a control system found in ISA84, Application of Safety Instrumented Systems of the Process Industry (a.k.a. IEC-61511 Functional Safety of Safety Instrumented Systems for the Process Industry Sector), which defines a control system as the input devices, final control elements, basic process control system, and the safety instrumented system. From this definition, the proposed framework may be:

  • Measurement (Inputs)
  • Final control elements
  • Process control system
  • Safety instrumented systems
  • Standards and codes

To determine which item is important to which practitioner, one of the first questions to be asked is, "what is your major area of practice?" The suggested choices include:

  • Instrument engineer, who specializes in measurement and final control areas
  • Process control engineer, who specializes in distributed control systems, remote-terminal units, programmable logic controllers, human-machine interfaces, advanced process controls, and other process control applications
  • Safety system engineer, who specializes in safety instrumented system applications

By analyzing the survey information in these major areas of practice with questions that examine the aspects of our work, the results will be used to update the CSEs' exam specification.

For this year's PAKS to best represent what CSEs do and how they serve the public, we strongly encourage you to participate in the survey.  As this survey develops, additional information on when, where, and how you can participate will be published. For more information on the PAKS survey, contact Dalton Wilson (