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Why Is There A Decline of Process Control in the HPI?

By Michael A Taube on 15 July 17

It was just a few years ago when conference sessions on process control were packed to “standing-room only” crowds, but, more recently, the attendance of similar sessions is at an all-time low.  For nearly forty years, utilizing computers and digital devices to automate, operate and optimize processes to get the most value out of the HPI plants and businesses was interesting and of high value to many. What has led to this dramatic decline in enthusiasm and interest for what was once seen as indispensable to plant profits?

Process Engineer in Control RoomManagement’s Role

Throughout the business community, the view of management and executives is ‘do more with less.’  The continued promulgation of this philosophy that began in the early 1990’s has resulted in widely documented layoffs, down-sizing and early retirement of mostly senior staff throughout HPI organizations.  What’s left is much younger and far less experienced skeleton crews that are expected to take on the responsibilities of these experienced workers.  The predictable outcome, of course, is that there’s too little time and too much to do by too few people, thus little attention can be given to all tasks and things fall by the wayside.   The management theory of ‘work smarter, not harder’ has eliminated experienced staff and in its place, are employees who in general are not fully trained or capable of performing all of the duties necessary to accomplish the desired operational and financial outcomes.  Thus, continuous optimization of process operations, which is the main focus of effective process control, has taken a back seat. This happens often because it requires expertise that is simply not available in the staff at hand.

The mindset of management toward process control has also contributed to the demise of process control.  Is management’s view that process control is just a few buttons to click to maintain the process, maintain the system; and, there is no need for experienced process engineers? It’s a plug-n-play item, right? With layoffs and cutbacks there are fewer and fewer experienced engineers that understand the value of process control, how it’s correctly applied and how it is best used to optimize, sustain and increase profit.

Engineering is like Maintenance: It requires constant attention and investment

As in many industries, layoffs and cutbacks were preceded by massive cuts in training programs and all but eliminated mentoring within organizations.  Engineers graduating from college are pursuing careers in areas other than process optimization and control because it’s regarded as a dying area with little room for advancement.  This is directly related to the lack of training and mentoring.  Control engineers need multiple skills, including process engineering knowledge, computer programming and software knowledge, as well as a plant operations and economics understanding.  The best way to achieve this knowledge is through additional post-college, in-situ training and apprenticeships with knowledgeable, seasoned staff.  This type of experience isn’t taught, neither can it be gained, in college: it is something that must be obtained from hands-on experience gained over time.  Because of management’s view, the industry has stopped investing in their people to create the type of expertise needed to be effective engineers. It is an expertise that requires consistent and persistent investment and development.

How to regain adequate Process Control Support

There are various causes for the loss of interest in process control.  Management solutions to loss of expertise and staff could bolster the support and productivity of process control systems: It is a vital component of economically optimum operations, but its engineering expertise levels are diverse and complex and, thus, must be treated with the same care and attention as the maintenance of the facilities in which they serve.  The HPI must re-invest in training beyond college for their people. This can be in the form of pairing with experienced engineers, on the job task oriented training programs, or take other similar forms that are hands-on that will develop sorely needed experienced process control engineers and not just expect less to do more.

S&D Consulting offers refining and petrochemical expertise for companies in North America, Asia-Pacific and Europe.  Our team has access to a wealth of experience and knowledge because we have worked on projects of all sizes and complexities in a wide range of locations around the world. We can help your staff solve the problems that plague your plants.

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