January/February 2011

An immeasurable allegiance to automation

InTech asked Gerald Wilbanks, P.E., to do an extended version of the ISA Insights member spotlight Q&A he participated in recently. Among his accomplishments, Wilbanks is a former ISA President (1995) and a Life Fellow Member of ISA (2002).

ISA/InTech: Tell our readers a little about yourself.

Wilbanks: My wife, Daris, and I live in Birmingham, Ala., where our two children grew up and are now living near us. I have been involved in instrumentation, automation, and control ever since I graduated from Mississippi State University with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. We enjoy our family, traveling, ISA activities, our church, and visits to the mountains. I was honored to be selected for Fellow Membership in ISA and to serve as ISA President in 1995. We have made great friends through our association with ISA and have been so fortunate to work with many outstanding staff members and volunteer leaders.

ISA/InTech: What drew you to this area of industry and study?

Wilbanks: I was always interested in what made things work, so I majored in engineering in college. While I was in college, I heard a presentation by an engineer dealing with instruments, and I thought that kind of work would be neat. The thought of measurement and control was intriguing, and it matched up with my electrical engineering studies. I started interviewing for a position with this type of description and worked for Union Carbide in Texas in the plant engineering group for four years. My primary assignments were to provide instrument engineering for the control systems for plant expansion projects. After that, we moved to Birmingham, and I worked for Rust Engineering for 32 years, where I was manager of Control Systems Design for 19 years and vice president of quality improvement for five years. Our focus was on all types of industrial facilities, including pulp and paper, chemicals, foods, power, and general manufacturing. These projects were performed during a period of rapidly changing technology, which made the engineering process very flexible and challenging. My primary involvement with ISA started during this time, and I worked in every office of the ISA Birmingham Section and in the Industries and Sciences Department. After leaving Rust, I became a partner in a firm offering engineering services, acquired a control systems rep firm, and remained very active in ISA. Today, I am in private practice, serve as an instructor for ISA classes, and serve on the Alabama Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors.

ISA/InTech: What motivates you in this industry?

Wilbanks: Automation and control impacts all phases of our lives. This is true in the home, in your travels, on the job, and in all facets of our everyday activities. Therefore, this field is very interesting and attractive due to the challenges and opportunities that present themselves to anyone practicing. While the laws of physics and science are the same, the automation technology changes every day, and it is a challenge to keep up with the new ways to engineer successful systems to control the industrial, commercial, and building automation processes. My interests have always been focused on seeing young people develop in their professional careers, and I have taught many classes for continuing education. There is something exciting about this field of work, and you can never be complacent and quit learning. The field of automation and control requires continual attention to stay up to date on the latest developments.

ISA/InTech: What would you tell others, particularly young people, about why they should get involved in automation and instrumentation?

Wilbanks: This is an outstanding field of work for anyone who likes to be challenged each day in their work, to learn new techniques in an expanding field, and to be involved in looking at something that they helped design, build, or operate. The future for automation and instrumentation is almost unlimited, and there is a real need for intelligent and aggressive practitioners.

I encourage young people to choose a field of work that will continue to be in demand, that will allow them to be a part of something exciting, and that has the type of work that has the characteristic of a continual development career. This describes the automation and control field of work.

ISA/InTech: Where do you see the automation field 10 years from now?

Wilbanks: There have been so many advances over the past 50 years that it is hard to believe. We have moved from mechanical systems, to pneumatic controls, to large case electronic hardware, to miniature electronic instruments, to large scale DDC computers, to configurable analog electronics, to programmable digital sequential control, to wireless data acquisition, to true distributed control, to field bus technology, to security systems, and on to safety instrumented systems, etc.

I believe we will see continual advances in communication networks, digital instrument accuracy, wireless control systems, cyber security, and true distributed control. Also, I believe we will see an increased demand for certified practitioners and licensed engineers as the safety systems become more complicated.