ISA Interchange

Welcome to the official blog of the International Society of Automation (ISA).

This blog covers numerous topics on industrial automation such as operations & management, continuous & batch processing, connectivity, manufacturing & machine control, and Industry 4.0.

The material and information contained on this website is for general information purposes only. ISA blog posts may be authored by ISA staff and guest authors from the automation community. Views and opinions expressed by a guest author are solely their own, and do not necessarily represent those of ISA. Posts made by guest authors have been subject to peer review.

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How Can We Develop and Motivate New Automation Professionals?

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.

John Adoga is a mechatronics engineer with KHS Machines. He has experience working on many different types of control systems and thrives on learning and overcoming new and exciting challenges. He is a hands-on engineer with a passion for optimizing and building systems from the ground-level mechanical side all the way up to higher-level control system and analytics.


John Adoga’s Question

How do you encourage the development and motivation of new engineers or technicians that will increase innovation and performance of automation projects given the increasing focus on minimizing time and money spent?


Leah Ruder’s Answer

These objectives can be aligned when you encourage innovation in productivity. Energizing automation practitioners to discover leaner execution methodologies and tool development can satisfy both objectives. The more efficient an automation practitioner becomes, while preserving quality, allow the practitioner to engage in more new projects. More new projects expose them to more learning opportunities to continue to grow their skill sets and expertise.


Greg McMillan’s Answer

The modern DCS and PLC have incredible capability and flexibility, but much of this power for improving process capacity and efficiency is underutilized resulting in copy jobs achieving not much more than the same level of process performance. Contributing factors are loss of expertise from retirements, shortage of free time, and fear of making any changes. New methods and tools for more efficient project execution mentioned by Leah can free up time and make implementation of process control improvements easier.

Practitioners need to take advantage of this, and also investigate opportunities and process metrics on their own time. Developing skills and tools with digital twin technology can be a way of defining and showing associates and management the type and value of improvements. In my golden years, I am committed to tutor aspiring young professionals on the use of the digital twin. The digital twin has demonstrated key performance indicators (KPIs) for training and has demonstrated the achievable value of increases in process capacity or efficiency. When combined with data analytics and IIoT, digital twin technology can lead to teaching people, eliminating silos, spurring creativity, and deeper involvement of design, operations, and maintenance—thus nurturing a sense of community and common objectives, and connecting the layers of automation and expertise so everybody knows everybody.

To advance our profession, practitioners should seek to publish what is learned, which can be done generically without disclosing proprietary data like what was done in the 1960s and 1970s by DuPont and Monsanto. For insights on the key to innovation and creativity in a conversation with a new automation professional who has excelled in modeling and control, see the November 2019 Control Talk column.


Michel Ruel’s Answer

We have programs to encourage innovation. Ideas are tested, and if they can generate good results, we have budgets to develop an innovation plan. Ideally, all good ideas are analyzed and supported.


David De Sousa’s Answer

The need to make operations sustainable pushes industries to minimize costs and reduce delivery timenot only for automation projects, but also on many other fronts. As budgets for training and development also shrink, many companies adopt a 70/20/10 strategy: 70% learning on the job, 20% learning from others, and 10% learning from formal training. In order to become more competitive and become able to solve problems through the use of novel solutions, young professionals need to invest time and resources in identifying opportunities that exploits those three roads for development (assignments, mentors, and formal training). Getting involved and gaining awareness on new standards and technologies will also help give themselves an edge in the very competitive market of automation.

For example, keeping track of future open automation standards could reduce the total cost of ownership and preserve asset owners' investment in automation infrastructure. It could significantly lower the cost of future replacement by following the development of time-sensitive networking (TSN) for safer and more efficient industrial networks.

I strongly believe that the ISA Mentor program is an important initiative that can help young professionals take control of the process of overcoming identified gaps and staying competitive. The program provides a platform to ask specific questions and to seek advice from seasoned professionals.

Finding the right mentor (or mentors) can change the trajectory of the professional career of young practitioners. Education professor Richard Reddick uses the word “mentorability” to refer to the ability of mentees to benefit from mentoring. Is the person open about the areas where he or she wants help? Is the person respectful of his or her mentor’s time and advice? The key to mentorability is an open and reciprocal partnership between mentors and mentees. Even though they may receive a lot of input, the mentee is the person in control, and they must respond to the mentor’s advice and give continual feedback about their needs.


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.).

Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan
Gregory K. McMillan, CAP, is a retired Senior Fellow from Solutia/Monsanto where he worked in engineering technology on process control improvement. Greg was also an affiliate professor for Washington University in Saint Louis. Greg is an ISA Fellow and received the ISA Kermit Fischer Environmental Award for pH control in 1991, the Control magazine Engineer of the Year award for the process industry in 1994, was inducted into the Control magazine Process Automation Hall of Fame in 2001, was honored by InTech magazine in 2003 as one of the most influential innovators in automation, and received the ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010. Greg is the author of numerous books on process control, including "New Directions in Bioprocess Modeling and Control Second Edition 2020" and "Advanced pH Measurement and Control Fourth Edition 2023." Greg has been the monthly "Control Talk" columnist for Control magazine since 2002. Greg has recently retired as a part-time modeling and control consultant in Technology for Process Simulation for Emerson Automation Solutions specializing in the use of the digital twin for exploring new opportunities. Greg received the ISA Mentoring Excellence Award in 2020 and the ISA Standards Achievement Award in 2023.

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