March/April 2012
Young Innovators

Automation applications 'right at my fingertips'

By Chantz Buxbaum

I am a second year student at North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS) in the electrical program. I have spent most of my time focusing on industrial electrical applications. The industrial field is comprised mainly of automation and instrumentation controls, and my classes at NDSCS focus on the basic applications of these techniques. My instructors are very knowledgeable of modern applications and give us situations to challenge us in these techniques in every class.

One lab we have done allowed us to run a process plant that controls two variables: the first, Solvex, a solution that is lighter than water; and the second, Redox, which, simply put, is water that has been dyed red. The solutions were originally stored in separate tanks, but for our lab, they were mixed together. Our goal was to control the mixture levels from two large tanks and have them return to their original tanks. As this was occurring, we monitored and controlled the application with a basic control method: input, controller, and output. Our inputs varied from RTD's, thermocouples, flow transmitters, pressure transmitters, and level transmitters. The controller could be the PLC, variable frequency drives, or transducers. The outputs are usually electric motors, but we also have pressure valves on the process plant. Using all this equipment in the lab requires a way to communicate with it. The tools we use to do this are HART communicators, AMS computer software, and Fluke meters. With these tools, we are able to effectively communicate with the instruments. It is so interesting to me to see all that happening right at my fingertips, and I really enjoy hooking into the control loop to watch what is happening.

This is my last semester at NDSCS before graduation, and throughout it, our classes have been especially focusing on our textbooks to get the core information we will need to know as professionals. As a student who has just begun this instrumentation, it is mind-blowing to me how much one really needs to know in order to be proficient in the field.

The instructors at NDSCS have the same experience as those who have spent years working in the field. One of my main instrumentation instructors is Shane Suko. Last year, I focused mainly on electrical theory, but Suko has played a major role as to why I now have chosen to focus on instrumentation and automation. He is our ISA student section advisor at NDSCS. He made the section seem fascinating to me as a first-year student and made me want to stay and learn as much as I possibly could.

We have weekly ISA meetings, and Suko definitely keeps us busy. We use our meeting times to prepare for our annual regional competitions. Our meeting activities consist of either a lecture or a lab, and sometimes we talk about analog and digital electronics, as well as how we can use gate logic to run a roving robot to be completely autonomous.

Our ISA section usually takes four teams to the regional competitions where there are typically a total of 16 teams. Many of the other teams are from colleges that are instrumentation specialized, and that makes the competition very intense. At the 2011 competition, the point-spread from last to first place was only 25 points. It was the closest competition ever, and this year, I do not see it being any different. This year, we are taking three teams, and while the teams are mostly made up of first-year students, with all the training we have been doing we should do fairly well at competition.

In the two years I have been at NDSCS, I have learned so much about automation and how I can control a process and make computers communicate with the whole process as well. I have ISA and my instructors to thank for all the knowledge I have today. I hope to be able to work in this field in the future and continue to increase my knowledge of instrumentation and automation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chantz Buxbaum is a student at North Dakota State College of Science in the electrical program and a member of the ISA Student Section there.