Accelerating the Process Automation Learning Curve

We continue to hear stories of an increasing experience shortage in the process industries due to the retiring “baby boom” generation. This shortage manifests itself in numerous job openings for process manufacturers and automation suppliers including Emerson Process Management.

I received a note from Control Talk blog’s Greg McMillan. He shared with me a story of how some universities have recognized and acted on this need to get a new generation of instrumentation and automation professionals the educational background to help accelerate the learning curve.

Hugo and Ina Champ Urbauer Hall

The story begins more than a decade ago when Greg was an adjunct professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Greg was asked to teach the lab course but was pressed with several other commitments. Greg reached out to a former colleague at Monsanto, Robert Heider, to see if he would be interested. Bob had an extensive process automation background and interest in supporting this hardware lab.

Bob has taught the Systems Engineering lab course, Digital Process Control Laboratory, now for ten years. Here is the course description:

Applications of digital control principles to laboratory experiments supported by a networked distributed control system. Lecture material reviews background of real-time programming, data acquisition, process dynamics, and process control. Exercises in data acquisition and feedback control design using simple and advanced control strategies. Experiments in flow, liquid level, temperature, and pressure control.

To help get the lab set up, Greg worked with several of the Emerson business units to get donated equipment including a DeltaV system, Rosemount measurement devices, and Fisher (Baumann) control valves. The cooperation extended beyond the initial donation to include DeltaV v11.3 software. Monsanto process control specialist, Jack Ahlers, worked with the Washington University staff to perform the upgrades. Jack and Greg had also collaborated in the past on the Process Control Lab simulations, which DeltaV users can download and run on their systems to learn more about process control fundamentals.

The neat part of the story is that interest in the lab has really grown over the past several years. When originally launched, the lab was offered as a single session once per year, with an initial enrollment of 10 students.

Today, the lab has expanded to two sessions per year, each with 26 students. What shines through this growth is Bob’s passion for the lab class. The feedback from the students is that they love his practical approach. Greg shared with me that several of the graduating students have gone on to work for Emerson, its local business partners, and process manufacturers.

These students are in the early parts of the learning curve of what it takes to be an automation professional. Bob’s practical approach to teaching this hands-on lab coupled with donations in time and equipment by Emerson and Monsanto is accelerating their path along this learning curve.

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