The following technical discussion is part of an occasional series showcasing the ISA Mentor Program, authored by Greg McMillan, industry consultant, author of numerous process control books, 2010 ISA Life Achievement Award recipient, and retired Senior Fellow from Solutia, Inc. (now Eastman Chemical). Greg will be posting questions and responses from the ISA Mentor Program, with contributions from program participants.
Byron Franklin is presently an automation engineer for Cooper Machinery Services Houston with more than 11 years of experience as a field services technician and an automation engineer. He has an associate of applied science degree, 30 hours toward a B.S. in information system security, and is working on a B.S. in electrical engineering.
Byron Franklin’s Question
Have there been many success stories of electrical engineers in automation careers, specifically PLC programming and control system engineers?
Hunter Vegas’s Answer
Greg McMillan’s Answer
I think our profession is uniquely exciting with a lot of opportunities. Many have moved up to management positions, but very few have left the profession. The automation system is the window into the process and the means of affecting the process. By using the best instrumentation, control strategies, and tuning, you can reduce variability—not only from problems originating from the process, mechanical design, or operator, but also from the control system, which is often the biggest source of disturbances. The challenge is that the literature out there is often more marketing-oriented or academic.
If you can go beyond the routine requirements and invest time in learning what Hunter and I are sharing through publications and the Mentor Program—and exploring opportunities on your own time—you can become an extraordinary automation engineer. Some companies have technical positions that recognize the value of technical expertise by the title “Fellow,” “Technologist,” “Principal,” and “Senior.” Dow, 3M, Solutia, and DuPont offer recognition by such titles. ISA does this as well, by the title “Fellow.”
At Monsanto and its spinoff Solutia, there was no upper grade level or pay limit to a “Distinguished Fellow” when I worked there. Theoretically, a Distinguished Fellow could be at the same level and get the same pay as a company president. I doubt this ever happened, but it was encouraging. I think there were a half dozen Monsanto Distinguished Fellows in corporate research and engineering back in the 1980s.
I got a M.S. degree in electrical engineering focusing on control theory with a couple of courses on distillation modeling and control. My thesis was on a charge balance and strategies for pH modeling and control. I had a B.S. in engineering physics, requiring all the courses of a physics major plus taking electives in mechanical and chemical engineering.
I think the education provided a foundation on physical principles and a deeper understanding of control system dynamics, but nearly all of what I used on my job was learned on-the-job—and by reading publications by Greg Shinskey and key practitioners, most notably those at Foxboro and DuPont in the 1970s. On the job, I was fortunate to be able to develop small first-principle dynamic simulations that enabled me to get at the heart of the matter before I ventured into the field with a process control improvement. See the Control article “Advancing career and system performance” (August 2020) for more on my path to success.
Unfortunately, most publications today are oriented to selling hardware or software, with often an IT focus on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) being the total solution. Practitioners at companies—who are users, not suppliers of automation systems—are typically not given the time or encouragement to publish, often presented with many procedural hurdles (particularly at chemical and especially biopharmaceutical companies) to ensure knowledge is of no value to competitors.
At Monsanto and Solutia, I was encouraged to publish, making it a way of life for me that continues to this day. My writing and mentoring have always been done on my own time, and while I work for a supplier these days, I am in research and development—which helps me to continue my goal of discovering and sharing knowledge to advance the profession.
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), and Daniel Warren (senior instrumentation/electrical specialist at D.M.W. Instrumentation Consulting Services, Ltd.).