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9 Automation Engineers' Ideas and Principles for Everyday Working Life

The following discussion is part of an occasional series, "Ask the Automation Pros," authored by Greg McMillan, industry consultant, author of numerous process control books, and 2010 ISA Life Achievement Award recipient. Program administrators will collect submitted questions and solicits responses from automation professionals. Past Q&A videos are available on the ISA YouTube channel. View the playlist here. You can read all posts from this series here.

Looking for additional career guidance, or to offer support to those new to automation? Sign up for the ISA Mentor Program.

Damien Hurley is a control and instrumentation (C&I) engineer for Fluor in the UK. He is currently involved in the detailed design phase of a project to build a new energy plant in an existing refinery in Scotland. His chief responsibility is C&I interface coordination with construction, the existing site C&I contractor, and the client.

Damien Hurley’s Question

What ideas and principles in your career have carried the most weight in your day-to-day working life?

Since we have such a wealth of knowledge available to us on the internet and in the literature, I think there's merit in knowing what fundamentals others have found important. "The wheat from the chaff," if you will! To get things rolling in this discussion, I offer some of my thoughts.


Damien Hurley’s Answers

For what it's worth, I've given mine below, as an instrument engineer:

  • Understand the process: you can't control what you don't understand
  • Read and know the specifications
  • Understand instrument and valve fundamentals: first principles and the technology's shortcomings
  • Understand how metallurgy impacts instruments: flange rating, material-of-construction, and so on
  • Talk to other engineers! We build process plants, not an electrical substation + mechanical equipment + piping; it's important to understand the interfaces, how your work impacts others, and vice versa

Matthew Howard’s Answers

Only a few years into my automation career, I seem to have fallen on two important principles: understanding and patience.

I find that most old problems are not solved because they are not understood. If they were understood, then a solution could be determined. If the solution were determined, the cost of that solution could be estimated. Also, the opportunity or justification could then be determined with confidence. It is then fairly simple to decide whether the opportunity is enough to justify the resources required to implement the solution. Too often, a problem languishes because we don’t really understand what is wrong, how much it is hurting us, and/or how we can fix it.

The second principle I have learned is patience. When it comes to optimizing an old process, it often takes a lot longer to get the gain the understanding necessary, to convince the organization of the importance, and to get the resources and implement the solution. This can be very frustrating for a young engineer. If you keep plodding ahead and grow in understanding of your process and your tools, what more can you expect? Eventually good things start to happen.


Nick Sands’ Answers

That is really a broad topic. There are personal, professional, and technical considerations. With limited time, here are some thoughts.

Personal considerations:

  • Know your priorities and spend your time accordingly. If you don’t, you can pay a high price personally. For example, if you are a father or mother, your priority is likely your children. If you have a partner, they are also a priority. Balance your home and work time accordingly.
  • Health first. Know your personal health and the impact of stress or other conditions, and balance accordingly.

Professional considerations:

  • Develop your own career vision. Your development is your responsibility and no one else’sdo not let your company limit your development. For example, if you want to attend a conference and your company does not support it, fund it yourself.
  • Understand your organization. Know who needs what information and provide it proactively. For example, avoid waiting for your manager to ask for information before providing it to them.
  • Manage conflicts. Learn how to work with others and find ways to minimize conflicts that require intervention. This can be a career limiter.

Technical considerations:

  • Develop a personal growth habit. Every year you should have a development goal. This is easier than ever—you can use YouTube or LinkedIn Learning to develop new skills. Read articles in publications like Control Talk or InTech. Take courses or read books.
  • Learn from operators, mechanics, and engineers. Some of the best control improvements come from solving the operators' problems and making their lives easierlisten to them. Treat your coworkers with respect and reward their help. For example, consider the power of donuts: bring in treats periodically for the operators, mechanics, and engineers you work with.
  • Always have a list of improvement opportunities. Find items that can improve the project or process, such as a list of control valves that should have new trim, controlling <5% or >80%.

Russ Rhinehart’s Answers

Of course, understanding the business context and the appropriate technology are very important. But so is understanding yourself and others.

If there are n others, then within the human context, there are (n+1) times the number of biases that you have. Your way might undermine another’s agenda, and give them the motivation to invest energy to undermine your ideas. Everyone loses.

Your way might not be the best or only wayjust the one that suits you. Understand the politics of other stakeholders in the human environment, and understand how your own needs and preferences might reject best solutions.


David De Sousa’s Answers

A few fundamental ideas and principles for me:

  • Take a holistic approach in your work
  • Foment a constructive collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines
  • Understand (and make sure that your team understands) the scope and deliverables of the project or tasks at hand


Field elements are not isolated islands in our processes, certainly not in our control and safety systems. We need to consider the whole physical and functional aspects of the loops in which they are inserted, and be aware of all other elements that affect them and with which they interact.

  • Physical aspects (Process connections: can they get plugged? Are they in the right location? Impulse lines: are best practices being followed for liquids, gas, steam? Process fluid: is it too aggressive for the primary element that was chosen?)
  • Electrical aspects (Grounding, susceptibility to interference, signal compatibility)
  • External stress aspects (Environmental protection, area classification requirements, barriers, and protection schemes)
  • Functional control and monitoring aspects (Scaling: was the end-to-end scaling of units checked? Conditioning: do I need it, is it being done at the transmitter, or at the DCS/PLC/PAC, or not being done at all, or being done twice? Be aware of noise amplification. Dynamic response: is the loop adding dead time unnecessarily, and is it being taken into account?)
  • Functional safety aspects (Redundancy, separation, diversity, common points of failure, for example)    

Non-field elements (both hardware and software) are a big part of the game. Take into consideration legacy, compatibility, interfacing requirements, network segmentation requirements, and general infrastructure.

The nature of the project at hand will also add aspects that need to be considered. Are you building a new system from scratch or extending an existing one? Are you upgrading or migrating?

For instance, in those systems being migrated, check the structure and form of the existing PID Functional Blocks. Are they supported by the process control library of the new systems? If not, make sure that the former is captured so that existing tuning parameter can be converted to fit the structure and form of the PID FBs of the future system (considering the process is not changing).


Mike Laspisa’s Answers

You don’t have to know everything. ISA provides technical papers on many topics, as well as training opportunities. Reach out to others—the department manager, senior engineers, vendors, or the internet (although be careful here, because outdated posts are generally never taken down)if you need advice on a challenging application. Perseverance is a valuable trait for an I&C engineer. In the end, finding the right solution is more important than if you originally knew the answer.

Besides understanding the process, the process data provided for I&C device selection and sizing must be analyzed, clarified when questions exist, and even challenged if necessary.

Understand the selected control system(s) and the project I/O requirements as they relate to the I&C devices. Will HART variables be used? Will any fieldbuses (Foundation fieldbus, Profibus, ASIbus, and so on) be utilized? Will Ethernet be used for I/O and/or motor control?

The interfaces between the primary control system and vendor-supplied skids need to be addressed very early on in the design phase. Hard-wire I/O directly to devices or the communication link to an on-board I/O module or processor, either with or without a limited hard-wired I/O handshake.


Zhafran Hamid’s Answers

  • Make the effort to understand how the instrument works. Getting the fundamental right helps to design & install it right the first time. It becomes handy during troubleshooting when something goes wrong. 
  • Having good mentors around is a big bonus. If you don't have one internally within your organization, there are many approachable experts who can give unbiased advice like Greg McMillan, George Buckbee, and Jon Monsen.  I am amazed that whenever I ask questions via email to these experts, they always reply with an "extra mile" explanation. 
  • Echoing Hunter Vegas' advice in Tip #41 of 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, engineers should get plant experience as much as possible. Best if we can get the position in the plant. I just did recently, and I really enjoy "seeing the real elephant up close." Young engineers who work in engineering design should not be afraid to go to site during the construction/commissioning stage of the project. This is the best place to learn what areas you may have overlooked during design, identify mistakes, rectify them in a short period of time, and recognize what can be done for improvement.
  • Damien Hurley's thought about talking to other engineers is true. Strong coordination of design input/output between instrument and other engineering disciplines as well as vendors is very important. We have encountered quite a few flow meters not properly installed (e.g., not enough straight length upstream, downward flow direction, wrong orientation of impulse tapping point). We have seen control valves positioner mounting or actuated on-off valves pneumatic control components mounting not facing the accessway or only accessible by means of erecting scaffolding. It is very tricky when involving package skid. Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas have written great guidance in the Control Talk column8 Rules to Avoid Skidding Accidents.

Greg McMillan’s Answers

Look for the things that can go wrong in the design and installation of field instrumentation, control valves, and variable frequency drives. This can be quite challenging because mistakes and problems are rarely publicized, let alone limitations. A lot of “what if” questions need to be asked as to operating conditions and installation details, particularly as to the effects of mixing, particles, flow and concentration profiles, coating, startups and shutdowns, rangeability, and driftas well as impulse line plugging, freezing, vaporization, and changes in phase.

Realize the real rangeability of flow meters for your application is a lot less than stated, except for Coriolis flow meters. Recognize actual rangeability of control valves is a lot less than cited, except perhaps for globe valves with low friction packing, diaphragm actuators, and smart positioners with aggressive gain action. The best practices at the end of each subsection in the Process/Industrial Instruments and Controls Handbook Sixth Edition 2019 provide an idea of what can go wrongand importantly, how to avoid the problem. The Control Talk columns “Prevent pressure transmitter problems” and “Your DP problems could be the result of improper use of purges, fills, capillaries, and seals” provide a lot of guidance on what can go wrong with our most common measurements.

For a dialog across the generations about plant operations and each generation's different ways of looking at problems, see the Control article “Process Automation Generations Talk to Each Other,” which can be particularly helpful since most of the extensive field expertise resides with older practitioners. The tips on the “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…” of various flow meters by Hunter Vegas in the ISA book 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career succinctly point to things that can go wrong. A lot of the other tips also help you avoid mistakes and reinforce the advice given in the answers in this Mentor post.


Michel Ruel’s Answers

Your thoughts are already on the right track.

A few basics:

  • Understand the process
  • Understand the dynamics
  • Use first principles (physics, chemistry, even philosophy!)
  • If it does not make sense to you, dig moremaybe you are right
  • Do not believe everything you read in specs and manualssee above
  • Spend time with operators and process engineers
  • ‘’Walk the process;’’ spend time on the floor
  • Do not hesitate to ask questions:
    • Does it work?
    • Is it used?
    • Does it perform?
    • Do we need more performance?

Projects, new ideas, and optimization:

  • Understand your organization
  • Understand the decision process
  • Understand your boss and upper management
  • Develop your communication skills

Have fun!

Additional Mentor Program Resources

See the ISA book 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career that grew out of this Mentor Program to gain concise and practical advice. See the Control Talk column "How to effectively get engineering knowledge" with the ISA Mentor Program protégée Keneisha Williams on the challenges faced by young engineers today, and the column "How to succeed at career and project migration" with protégé Bill Thomas on how to make the most out of yourself and your project. Providing discussion and answers besides Greg McMillan and co-founder of the program Hunter Vegas (project engineering manager at Wunderlich-Malec) are resources Mark Darby (principal consultant at CMiD Solutions), Brian Hrankowsky (consultant engineer at a major pharmaceutical company), Michel Ruel (executive director, engineering practice at BBA Inc.), Leah Ruder (director of global project engineering at the Midwest Engineering Center of Emerson Automation Solutions), Nick Sands (ISA Fellow and Manufacturing Technology Fellow at DuPont), Bart Propst (process control leader for the Ascend Performance Materials Chocolate Bayou plant), Angela Valdes (automation manager of the Toronto office for SNC-Lavalin), Daniel Warren (senior instrumentation/electrical specialist at D.M.W. Instrumentation Consulting Services, Ltd.), and Ryan Simpson (process analytics engineer at Eastman Chemical).

Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan has more than 50 years of experience in industrial process automation, with an emphasis on the synergy of dynamic modeling and process control. He retired as a Senior Fellow from Solutia and a senior principal software engineer from Emerson Process Systems and Solutions. He was also an adjunct professor in the Washington University Saint Louis Chemical Engineering department from 2001 to 2004. Greg is the author of numerous ISA books and columns on process control, and he has been the monthly Control Talk columnist for Control magazine since 2002. He is the leader of the monthly ISA “Ask the Automation Pros” Q&A posts that began as a series of Mentor Program Q&A posts in 2014. He started and guided the ISA Standards and Practices committee on ISA-TR5.9-2023, PID Algorithms and Performance Technical Report, and he wrote “Annex A - Valve Response and Control Loop Performance, Sources, Consequences, Fixes, and Specifications” in ISA-TR75.25.02-2000 (R2023), Control Valve Response Measurement from Step Inputs. Greg’s achievements include the ISA Kermit Fischer Environmental Award for pH control in 1991, appointment to ISA Fellow in 1991, the Control magazine Engineer of the Year Award for the Process Industry in 1994, induction into the Control magazine Process Automation Hall of Fame in 2001, selection as one of InTech magazine’s 50 Most Influential Innovators in 2003, several ISA Raymond D. Molloy awards for bestselling books of the year, the ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010, the ISA Mentoring Excellence award in 2020, and the ISA Standards Achievement Award in 2023. He has a BS in engineering physics from Kansas University and an MS in control theory from Missouri University of Science and Technology, both with emphasis on industrial processes.


Advances in Reactor Measurement and Control
Good Tuning: A Pocket Guide, Fourth Edition
New Directions in Bioprocess Modeling and Control: Maximizing Process Analytical Technology Benefits, Second Edition
Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements in the Process Industry: A Guide to Design, Configuration, Installation, and Maintenance
101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career
Advanced pH Measurement and Control: Digital Twin Synergy and Advances in Technology, Fourth Edition
The Funnier Side of Retirement for Engineers and People of the Technical Persuasion
The Life and Times of an Automation Professional - An Illustrated Guide
Advanced Temperature Measurement and Control, Second Edition
Models Unleashed: Virtual Plant and Model Predictive Control Applications

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