The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is Tip #34, and was written by Hunter.
This tip is actually a compilation of Tip #1 “Never Stop Learning” and Greg’s tip on “Seek Principles,” Tip #66. As a young engineer I spent a great deal of time and effort learning how instrumentation worked. Once I had a thorough understanding of that information, I could evaluate competing instrumentation designs and better select the best choice for a given application.
Concept: Making the effort to study and understand exactly HOW instruments work will generate a lifetime of benefits. This should be a high priority for any young automation engineer.
Details: Young engineers are often amazed by the ability of a seasoned engineer to ask a handful of pointed questions and immediately select the best instrument type and manufacturer for a given application. This skill does not require a photographic memory nor 54 years of instrumentation specification experience. It simply requires that the engineer understand exactly HOW the equipment functions. Once you know that, it is a straightforward effort to systematically eliminate instrument types that cannot work and gradually pare the number of options to a select few. A few more questions will often reveal the superior option. If you know the different designs offered by the various vendors and know the strengths and weaknesses of those designs, you can quickly name the particular make and model best suited for the application being considered.
Learning all of that information is not a minor undertaking, but it is not monumental either. When an opportunity arises, take the time to learn about unfamiliar instrumentation and seek to understand the details behind its function.
Watch-Outs: The pursuit of instrumentation knowledge should begin with unbiased sources (such as ISA or other technical organizations). These organizations tend to provide a more complete picture of instrument design and list the pros and cons of each technology. Vendors often give a more limited view of the technology, highlighting their own product line but downplaying (or even ignoring) competing designs. Vendor information can provide useful information about the particular design details of different instruments, but it is a poor place to start if you are just entering the field.
Insight: Spending some time in the field with the maintenance technicians can be invaluable to a new engineer. If you develop a good relationship and rapport with the techs, you will learn a great deal about the installation, repair, and troubleshooting of various instruments. Knowing how instruments can fail is as important as knowing how they work.
Rule of Thumb: Take a few basic ISA instrument courses, read some books, and ask co-workers about instrumentation and how it works. A detailed understanding of these devices is critical for any automation professional.
About the Author
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 Advances in Reactor Measurement and Control and Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements in the Process Industry. Greg has been the monthly "Control Talk" columnist for Control magazine since 2002. Presently, Greg is a part time modeling and control consultant in Technology for Process Simulation for Emerson Automation Solutions specializing in the use of the virtual plant for exploring new opportunities. He spends most of his time writing, teaching and leading the ISA Mentor Program he founded in 2011.
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Hunter has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.