September/October 2011
ISA Automation Week: Automation Founder Circle

EDITOR'S NOTE: ISA continues its tradition of honoring leaders throughout the automation industry by presenting the Automation Founders Circle awards. This year's recipients are Martin Klein with the Arnold O. Beckman Founder Award, Gerald Wilbanks with ISA's 2011 Life Achievement Award, and Andy Chatha with the ISA Honorary Member award, the highest honor bestowed by the Society.

Championing better education and training tools earns Wilbanks ISA Life Achievement Award

By Jim Strothman
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Even before being promoted in 1973 to engineering manager - Control Systems at engineering and construction giant Rust Engineering Co., W. Gerald Wilbanks realized better education and training tools for young instrumentation engineers and technicians were sorely needed.

"In those days, most all instrumentation knowledge had to be developed by experience and self-studies," said Wilbanks, P.E., recalling his experiences after earning his electrical engineering degree at Mississippi State University in 1964 and beginning his career as an electrical controls engineer for Union Carbide Corp. in Port Lavaca, Tex.

"A lot of my early education came from ISA. I joined ISA in 1966, and when I moved to Rust Engineering in 1968 and got promoted to engineering manager - Control Systems five years later, we were hiring additional people, and I realized we needed to better train young graduate engineers," he said.

"So, we developed an educational lab to enhance measurement and other skills, developing lecture material and lab exercises. I got involved with the local ISA section teaching a three-day course on fundamentals."

Elected 50th ISA President

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Wilbanks, soon after, became active with ISA at the national level, then international level. He became ISA's 50th president in 1995, the year ISA's Certified Control Systems Technician program was launched. For four decades, Wilbanks has worked at improving education and training tools and teaching courses. His efforts helped hundreds of engineers and technicians improve skills and advance their careers.

While ISA has been his main focus, Wilbanks has also been involved in examinations and other activities with the Alabama Society of Professional Engineers (ASPE), National Council of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors (NCEES), and several other professional organizations.

Two years ago, Alabama Governor Bob Riley appointed Wilbanks to the Alabama State Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors. He currently serves as the board's secretary.

Recognizing his numerous accomplishments, ISA will honor Wilbanks by presenting him with the Society's prestigious Life Achievement Award on 17 October, the opening day of ISA Automation Week in Mobile, Ala.

Recognizes 'sustained dedication'

The award "recognizes individuals with a history of sustained dedication to the instrumentation, systems, and automation community."

Wilbanks' award citation reads: "In recognition of a lifetime of dedication to technical education, professional practice, certification and credentialing, and leadership to industry, the automation community at large, and his beloved vehicle for sharing the knowledge, mentoring, and leadership extension: ISA."

"The subcommittee unanimously selected Gerald Wilbanks because of the collective personal knowledge of Gerald's commitment to the automation profession and how he manifested his exemplary efforts to the benefit of ISA. In short, Gerald has always been a strong section mentor and supporter, leading the Birmingham (Ala.) Section along with a host of motivated local leaders over a long period of time to be one of the most successful in (ISA)," said Steve Huffman, chair of the ISA Honors & Awards subcommittee, which recommended Wilbanks receive the Life Achievement Award.

Asked his reaction when learning he won the award, "I was completely speechless and humbled," Wilbanks said. "I did not know my name was even submitted for that award."

Two years ago, ISA's Birmingham section honored Wilbanks by creating the "Daris and Gerald Wilbanks Endowment," which provides scholarships through the ISA Educational Foundation Scholarship fund. He gives much credit for his successful professional career to his wife, Daris, his bride of almost 51 years and to his son, Scott, and daughter, Lisa.

Developed CSE exam course

Nearly all U.S. states require individuals to pass a Control Systems Engineer (CSE) exam in order to become a licensed CSE professional. Around the year 2000, Wilbanks determined several local ISA chapters offered courses that trained engineers to pass pieces of the exam. However, ISA offered no structured, national-level course specifically designed to help engineers pass state exams and become licensed CSEs.

"You know how it is when you suggest something. You get to do it," Wilbanks laughed. "I spent a year, working with my (business) partner, sandwiching together pieces, extracting parts of ISA classes, developing a three-day ISA course. Titled "Control Systems Professional Engineer Exam Review," the course was launched in 2002. Since its inception, Wilbanks has taught the course several times a year in regional locations throughout the U.S. Also, he instructs a six-part web seminar on the same subject each summer as a part of the distance learning efforts of the ISA Training Institute.

"If I had to pick out a singular accomplishment of which I'm most proud, I would pick out that," he said. "I get a lot of letters from students thanking me for developing the class and teaching the class."

While ISA President and during his years on the Society's Executive Committee in the mid-1990s, he helped make ISA a more international organization. He served as a member of the China Instrument Society Liaison Committee, as chair and member of the Conference & Exhibit Global Oversight Board, and as chair and member of ISA's Globalization Development Council.

Consulting firm

Wilbanks has his own consulting firm, Documentation & Engineering Services, based in Trussville, Ala. As its principal engineer, he provides training, consulting services, auditing assistance, and design engineering to the industrial community.

"I always wanted to do two things: own my own business and be in sales and marketing. About 2004, my son and I acquired an existing manufacturers representative firm, so I accomplished my two goals. I had the excitement of meeting payrolls, doing sales, keeping up with paperwork and licenses," he said. After four years, "we sold (the firm) to a company in North Carolina. My son still works there, as a vice president, and I was able to make a dime or two and ride off into the setting sun."

Wilbanks worked for Rust Engineering for 32 years (from 1968 until 2000). During the 19 years he served as engineering manager - Control Systems, his department had nearly 200 employees working on a myriad of projects. Motivating him to improve training was the fact that "the better they were trained, the better job they did. And the better job they did, the better job the bosses would say I did."

ISA also honored Wilbanks in 2002, recognizing him as an ISA Fellow. In 1991, he was named Birmingham Alabama Society of Professional Engineers (ASPE) Engineer of the Year, and that same year, he was named Birmingham Area Engineer of the Year by the Engineering Council of Birmingham (ECOB). He served as ECOB's president in 1978.

"All of this (ISA, career, and other professional accomplishments) is tied to my passion for training," Wilbanks said. "I get an uplifting experience when I see young people who I helped train and develop move ahead and advance in their professional careers."