5 Questions for Process Control Consultant Mark Coughran

Let’s continue our 5 Questions for an Emerson Expert podcast series with Mark Coughran. Mark has decades of experience in process automation and optimization. We’ve shared some of Mark’s experience and client engagements here on the blog. In this podcast, you’ll hear how he started at the control valve in his journey in gaining experience to optimize entire plants. He offers guidance for new engineers entering the field of process automation.

Send me feedback with a comment below if there is a particular Emerson expert you’d like to hear from and any specific questions you’d like me to ask them.

Emerson's Mark Coughran


Jim: Hi, everyone. I’m Jim Cahill, and welcome to our “5 Questions for an Emerson Expert” podcast series. Today, I’m joined by Mark Coughran. Mark is a process control consultant with decades of experience in process automation and optimization. He’s consulted with clients across the spectrum of industries, from Life Sciences to upstream and downstream hydrocarbon production and processing. Welcome, Mark.

Mark: Hello, Jim. Thanks for bringing me in today.

Jim: Well, let’s start out. As you were growing up, what led you to study in the field of STEM—science, technology, engineering and math, I guess, specifically, mechanical engineering in your case?

Mark: Well, it was just the machinery around the household that got me interested, my mom’s washing machine and my sister’s bicycles. I started fixing those, taking them apart. In that way, I became interested in more and more complex machines like automobiles, and that led me naturally into the mechanical engineering degree program.

Jim: Okay, that’s great. So, what led you from there, specifically, into the world of process automation and optimization?

Mark: Well, it was a gradual process of learning about adjacent spaces or related topics. I went to graduate school to work on fluid mechanics because I’d become interested in that topic, thanks to a summer job where I worked in an ice machine factory. So, we had refrigerants flowing and water flowing and air flowing, and I decided I would study that topic in graduate school. And at the end of that, I joined a Navy laboratory to do research on turbulent flows. And then, when I realized that my family needed to live somewhere else, I heard about this company called Fisher Controls, which, shortly after I joined them, became an Emerson division.

So, at Fisher Controls, I worked in the laboratory starting with flow issues, and then I became interested in not just the valves, but the actuators and positioners that go on the valves and how all that works together. Built a laboratory to test things that way, which was the first time for that in our industry, and then we started getting data from customers where they had problems with the control loop. So, you can kind of see the picture expanding, right? We have the control valve goes out on the field. It’s installed in piping. It has fluid flowing through it. It’s connected to a transmitter and a controller. All these other things are happening, and customers had problems with these control loops, sometimes blaming that incorrectly on the control valve, which Fisher had supplied.

So, I started learning how to analyze the data from the plant, and I took some training courses from a company called Entech, which Emerson also acquired a few years later. And I became interested in the performance of the loop as a whole, and then came over to the Process Systems and Solutions Group, where I work now, with you, Jim. And I’ve been doing troubleshooting and optimization of control loops and the unit around the control loops ever since then.

Jim: That’s really interesting. It’s like the story of growing up, how you started taking apart things, and more complex and more complex as you went along and, similarly, starting with the basic final control and building it up from there. That’s fascinating. Can you tell us about a recent challenge that you’ve had that has helped one of our customers solve an issue?

Mark: Yes. I’d like to actually mention a couple of challenges, Jim, because in the past, you have written blogs and we’ve done posts about several projects where I’ve gone out to a process plant in various industries and solved problems using the live data and kind of a hands-on approach. To tell about some current or recent projects, I’d like to talk about a different way of solving these problems, which involves simulation. And about two years ago, we had a customer in a mining operation, and our local business partner had specified some control valves to control the pressure. If you can imagine water going into the mine and going down pipes over a mile deep into the earth, and at the end of that pipe, you have to control that pressure, which is obviously built up to a very high level. Well, they were having trouble with the pressure control loop around these valves, and we decided, since Emerson does not allow its employees to go into a confined space, that we would build a simulation of this control loop, and we did that.

In a computer program, we modeled that cone of water, we modeled the control valve and the actuator and the positioner which, luckily, I had been studying for about 20 years from a hands-on basis, and we wrapped around that a model of a transmitter and a controller. And very quickly, we saw that they had opportunities to improve many things in this controller, starting inside the control valve and its trim, its positioner tuning. The process transmitter was a good, reliable Rosemount transmitter, but it had been set up incorrectly. And then, on the controller side, which was actually a PLC in this case, there were opportunities to improve the execution and the control strategy as well.

So, in making those changes, the customer was able to greatly reduce the variations in that pressure, which helped them not only control the drills and the cooling equipment downstream way down in the mine, but also much more stable operation of the pipes carrying that water all the way down. So, process simulation is kind of a different way of approaching these problems. We do, most of the time, prefer to go out to the field so we can see what’s really happening, but there’s case where the simulation is the right way to do it.

The second example I wanna bring up is also a simulation case. This was, again, with one of our local business partners that was working to specify control valves for a pressure control system, and this is processed air. So the plant’s in California. They didn’t have budget, actually, to include travel, so we decided we would do a simulation of all these sections of piping. Again, we can model the control valves because they’re Fisher control valves, we know how they behave, and so on and so on, we can model the process transmitter and the controller. To do this project, I had to open up the old thermodynamics textbooks from 35 years ago and that college degree program that I mentioned to you earlier. So, I bring this story up because it’s coming back full circle, and I’m now actually using things that I had long forgotten. But thanks to still having those textbooks on the shelf, I can make a pretty decent model of how that system works. So, we’re proceeding with that now and I’m having a lot of fun with that.

Jim: Well, that’s fascinating. So, let that be a lesson for those of you that think you can forget it right after the next test. You may need that knowledge, and it may be decades later when you need it. So, what do you do outside of work, you know, in your spare time, for fun?

Mark: The evenings and weekends are too valuable to waste on television or the internet, so I try to stay active. I like to go out in the evenings and walk or attend a dance class, and then, on the weekends, I go out in the hill country to go hiking. Or if I can go out on vacation for a week, then I’ll go to the mountains.

Jim: Yeah, that’s great. Far too much we spend sitting in our seats, so when you’re not here at a desk or something like that, that sounds like very sage advice there. And I guess, to close it all out for someone new, maybe, into our world of process automation, what advice would you have for them to kinda help them accelerate their learning curve?

Mark: Well, I’ve met a lot of new people out in the plants that I visit. Obviously, I visit plants almost full-time. We have a lot of bright, young engineers coming into the plants, and I always give them the advice to try to step away from the computer and go out to the pipes, try to figure out what’s actually happening in the process, what the real physical problems are with the process, meet those eccentric people that work in those departments that you’re gonna need very soon. Again, it’s a theme about getting up and walking around the plant, getting out of your comfort zone, which may be coming from a recent degree program. You may have a lot of capabilities with analysis and things that the computers are really good for. So, I’m just suggesting that you actually go out and learn about the hardware, and the fluids and the people in the plant.

Jim: All right. Well, that is fantastic advice. Mark, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mark: Thank you, Jim, for having me.

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