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.
Ed Farmer's Question
Out in the world a lot of things happen, and when they do, their effect propagates in various directions and various ways. Often, a change impacts a series of sequential or related events sufficiently to change the nature—or even the possibility of—an anticipated outcome. What do you see as changes occurring now and in the future? Today, is working from home better or worse than driving across town to a factory or office? Does that kind of change affect cost, availability, quality, schedule, stability, marketability, or some other factors? Are these changes positive or negative? Do they suggest review of methodology (e.g., operations research) might be appropriate? If some changes are better and some make things worse, can it all be restructured into a dependably positive outcome?
Russ Rhinehart’s Responses
The online availability of both journal and periodical subscriptions and for-purchase books, and especially the access to free resources, is making a large change in how we teach and how independent learners learn engineering. It also affects associated aspects of knowledge generation and dissemination: It is convenient to query the internet, especially when a book is not handy. Like when you are in a meeting or when a topic comes up in a social event, you can get an immediate answer.
It is convenient to query the internet, especially when a book is not handy. Like when you are in a meeting or when a topic comes up in a social event, you can get an immediate answer
- E-versions do not require paper, printing, inventory, and shipping. This is a “green” move toward reduction in resource use and waste
- It is much faster to search for keywords in e-versions relative to using chapter titles or indices to find the right page in print books
- E-versions of materials can contain links to other materials such as simulators or videos to support understanding or simulators for user testing. Both are major advantages over print versions of materials, since they do not require the material, labor, and infrastructure needed to support print—so they are less expensive
- Print publishers are converting their business infrastructure to enable the offering of e-materials to survive
Pirates can easily “benefit humanity” by placing e-versions of books and solutions manuals on the internet for open access. The pirate would not have a financial return, but might be motivated by becoming an appreciated and recognized social media friend, or just as an agent of an adversary that undermines the capitalistic way
Individuals post their solutions to end-of-chapter exercises online. They used to keep these in their fraternity/sorority files. With solutions available, instructors that use textbook exercises for tests and assignments are undermining the learning process. They might as well say, “Here is the solution. Copy it and turn it in for a grade"
- Royalties to authors of textbooks were relatively small, but now they are smaller, and an author might as well offer the book for free on the internet. I think this will affect businesses that publish
- The cost of print is driving periodicals such as InTech to convert to digital only. Some courses use less expensive digital versions of the text. Instructors can select from many instructional modules the dozen or so they want to use in their course.
- One incentive for authors to publish for open access on the internet includes providing learning materials for college and training courses and providing knowledge. However, other incentives to publish include the generation of “evidence” that the author is an expert. This may be motivated by personal benefit such as promotion, ego, immigration application, or as a teaser for you to hire their expertise. This means that much of the “information” out there is superficial, or even erroneous. There is no referee to validate the material. Novices seeking knowledge must become critical thinkers to reject that sort of stuff. Education needs to better prepare students to critically evaluate the material given to them by “experts”
- Similarly, AI such as ChatGPT can generate answers to questions. But are the answers complete, right for the context, or infected by other open access internet postings? Again, novices must be able to debunk the superficial “expertise”. Critical thinking skills are more relevant than ever
- For-subscription technical and science journals—such as ISA Transactions—have a rigorous review process for manuscript acceptance, and one can count on the articles being complete and accurate—critically refereed. One must pay to access the articles, and the subscriber fees support the infrastructure that publishes and archives the issues. Here, the higher the quality of the articles, the greater the sales for the organizations that support the journal. About 20 years ago, however, organizations started open-access journals. Here, authors pay to have their manuscripts published and archived, and the greater number of articles accepted, the greater is the publisher’s income. It seems that quantity, not quality is the business driver for open-access journals, and I sense that open access articles are incomplete, misdirecting, and usually have trivial innovation—yet have self-glorification claims. But these articles are free to all, easily accessed, and are becoming frequent citations in subsequent articles as graduate students lead the generation of publications for their professors
- Libraries, originally a place to organize and safely preserve precious one-of-a-kind manuscripts and knowledge from past eras, now find themselves no longer the sole possessor of knowledge and information. Libraries are full of duplicates of mass-produced books. Not every library needs to preserve a copy of the same book. Many are converting documents to e-versions, and are converting their space for community activities that still support education and language and science arts.
I think that the open access to information will continue to provide benefit regarding “green” movements and speed and effectiveness of learning. But also, it will continue to cause disruption and reactive changes in education, libraries, publication houses, and to the criteria used to select engineering employees.
Greg McMillan's Responses
I agree that the future is online access to knowledge ideally expressed as concisely and relevantly as possible as seen in the popularity of these Q&A posts and my Control Talk blogs and columns. The Mentor 2016 and 2017 WebEx presentations had enthusiastic participation. The video recordings offer a continual source of knowledge. I plan to restart a series of WebEx presentations this summer. The question is—when is the best time for a live participation? Practitioners are so busy on the job, possibly traveling, and are trying to relax on weekends. My initial thought is do the WebEx presentations around lunch time on Fridays. I am also thinking of possibly trying a casual, less intense podcast on Saturdays.
There are some words of warning about knowledge lost. The outstanding papers and articles written by experts in DuPont, Foxboro, and Monsanto can only be found in some libraries if you know the title and author. All of Greg Shinskey’s books are out of print and most of mine are as well. For awhile, some of mine were put back into print by UMI Books on Demand, but this company is out of business.
I updated and put three of my books back into print by Momentum Press in 2014 (Tuning and Control Loop Performance Fourth Edition, Axial and Centrifugal Compressor Control, and Process Control Case Histories). The hundreds of publications in my personal library from bygone eras do not turn up in searches on topics. The fundamental knowledge in these publications has been lost. There are participants of the Mentor Program who want more extensive knowledge found in these publications. I have given away a lot of books in this regard. These days I spend more on buying copies of my books that I get in royalties. The monetary aspect was never an incentive for me, anyway.
Readers today tend not to be given the time to explore and learn on the job due to the increasing pressure of schedules. There is not much free time off the job these days due to a variety of reasons. To help readers quickly focus on and retrieve essential information recognizing time constraints, I have inserted rules of thumbs, key insights, and best practices in my books since 2004. The rules of thumb and key insights are flagged with an icon, and the best practices in my most recent books (McGraw-Hill Process/Industrial Instrumentation and Controls Handbook Sixth Edition, ISA New Directions in Bioreactor Modeling and Control Second Edition, and ISA Advanced pH Measurement and Control Fourth Edition) are inserted at the end of each section or chapter. Once you value a book as a resource, you may realize that for creativity and innovation there an advantage of just flipping through a book not knowing specifically what you are looking for and subsequently investing some time to read a section.
My hope is that the extensive expertise in these books and the value of learning and using this expertise is not lost. My concern is the expectation in universities and industry that artificial intelligence will replace the need for this expertise will result in data scientists and not process control engineers being prevalent. Since money is the primary motive in executive decisions, the development and installation of online monetarized key performance indicators (KPI) can promote the value of better instrumentation and automation.
Working with universities providing online courses for engineering students, particularly those in chemical engineering, showing examples of the value of process control improvement is mutually beneficial. This would hopefully result in more recognition of the value of existing practitioners and more job opportunities for graduates. For more on how to get the support of management, see these two Control Talk Columns: "Want to be a hero?" and "Keys to optimization project success."
See the Control Global feature article of conversations between mentors and proteges titled “Process Automation Generations Talk to Each Other,” for insights as to how we can possibly continue the advancement of our profession by the sharing of knowledge.
There is value of human connection not obtained in video conferences. I relish the times I could walk into a colleague’s office without a question or agenda and just let the conversation take us into new territories. Seeking open-ended conversations particularly with knowledgeable people, being a good listener, and having an open mind can offer extraordinary benefits. We should encourage such causal meetings in companies and conferences. See the ISA book 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career for concise philosophical, career, and technical guidance.
Ed Farmer’s Follow-up Responses
My thinking about change involves at least three dimensions. First is the science—the manifestation of nature—that is the basis of everything. We live for an infinitesimal time in a tiny corner of something that is both much larger and far smaller than we can perceive. What we can know about it is a tiny portion of what there is to know, but what we really understand demonstrates what we are and where we are going.
There was, for example, that “Oppenheimer Moment” that spawned a lot of change. Second is the technology—did the onset of engine-driven machinery mark the end of the horse? What about the spectrum of things that had been so useful because of horses? What were our needs at the time? How did fulfilling those needs change? Third, there is the evolution of human needs and desires, e.g., do humans desire freedom or fear it? Do we want individuality or community? Are we willing to exert effort toward things and situations we desire?
All of this “nature”—and thinking about it—helps us find focus on things that matter and from that, what is important for adapting who and what we are to fit into what we see coming toward us. Automation is a case in point. I graduated from college in 1971. Automation was a driving force in where industry was going and I found a good and profitable life working there. What would a 30-year old today see out toward the current horizon? Would that view show him his way?
In an early 2000s recession my company changed from countless and expensive site visits around the world to remote support. We reconfigured the major equipment we sold for remote service and support. Personal contact shifted toward video teleconferences—since we worked around the world that changed our work days and hours. Most things got better. A few things illustrated the importance of humans relating to humans, and we adapted. Lots of new things and new technology became evident during that time and suggested where one might find a secure and profitable future.
My point is that understanding the times and the “forces” acting upon them is a good idea and often (usually) important for a succeeding generation or two or three. Sure, it is important to know what is around the next curve, but there may be even more to wonder and worry about farther up the road. Being as ready as possible for that can be important— and might even put you economically ahead of the pack.