Training new engineers

Engineers are vital to thriving economies, and UK engineers are known to be innovators, so are sought after in starting up new products or projects: but at the moment demand for engineers outstrips supply, at least in the UK – perhaps not so in India or China, where maybe the status achieved by engineers makes the career attractive to many at school. In the USA, the 50,000 engineers spawned by the boom of the Apollo projects are now retiring: in the UK similar boosts in engineering interest were caused by the Harrier and the Concorde projects.

This was the major conference topic at the recent National Instruments professional development conference for engineers, scientists and educators, held at the IET in London. Wing Commander Andy Green, the World Land Speed record holder, introduced the Bloodhound SSC project for the development and trial of a 1000mph car: this is intended as a project to involve schools and inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists – particularly during the early years in secondary school where maths and science subjects are thought to be seen as “more difficult”.

In terms of providing engineering interest to kids, I was impressed with the Lego Education solutions, for 7-11 year olds, providing USB connection to a laptop for movement, position and tilt control, leading on to the Lego Mindstorms robots for older children, where NI graphical programming is built-in. The comment from Frances Griffiths, the NI Europe VP that kids can use and develop/adapt technology amazingly is maybe part of the background that leads to innovators. Certainly the Institute of Measurement and Control local sections have been introducing and donating Lego Mindstorm kits to local schools (Link). Other similar ideas, maybe for Christmas presents, are available on-line from the Eden Project: there are some interesting solar powered models, plus a hydrogen fuel cell powered car, refueled from a solar powered charger. Incongruously, one model is of a solar powered wind turbine! (Link).

The NECR, National Engineering and Recruitment Exhibition, last week saw Atkins, Jacobs, UKAEA, Siemens, AWE and BAe actively seeking future employees and apprentices. Lord Mandelson wanted to see more science and engineering courses with links to industry. I would like to redirect the effort from industry into explaining what their engineering products and systems do, to the 11-13 year olds, either with school visits to industrial sites, or after school presentations and demonstrations. Too much pre-programmed teaching, and not any input to expand their view of the adult world, cannot be right! But then BAe, and other similar companies, would not need to make their experienced 50 year olds redundant (as they still are), they could be used to inspire the next generation.

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Wireless systems and Liquiphant

Reading many of the websites and editorials commenting on process industry “Hot topics”, they seem to have manufactured a big confrontation between the proponents for the WirelessHART and ISA100 wireless sensor standards. You have to wonder whether this is just to fill column inches, elevate the status of the relevant experts and their companies, or just keep the subject in the magazine discussion columns? Remember the fieldbus wars, which fizzled out in an effervescence of international agreement – mainly between Siemens and Emerson – and with the addition of third party interfaces. Really the wireless spat is all pretty inevitable, when there are such large commercial interests at stake.

Both the WirelessHART system, mainly championed by Emerson, and the ISA100.11a standard championed by Honeywell and Yokogawa, have shown themselves able to offer the open, interoperable multi-vendor capability requested. The two standards are too far apart to be combined, so that one sensor cannot be configured to operate automatically on either system. However, with what seems to be a lot of the actual wireless technology bought in, the interoperability might come from the wireless suppliers themselves. Well done Apprion – their Ion system integrates both these wireless systems in one receiver, and allows transmission of real-time sensor data from devices instrumented with ISA100 or WirelessHART sensors to the Ion Condition Monitoring application. Plus the Apprion Ion Condition Monitoring application can be combined with other Ion applications such as Ion Video and/or Ion Asset Tracking to create operational dashboards customised to each individual’s role in the plant. Perhaps now we can get on and begin to use the technology, ignoring the confusion spread by the high tech doom-mongers? (Link)
Follow that! It’s easy – but actually it’s not that easy for a company to get new column inches about a product that just keeps on doing what it should, for 25 years, even if it is the best solid state liquid level switch in the world. The Endress + Hauser Liquiphant was introduced in 1983, when it was revolutionary! It did take time, and a fair few blown up units, for users to understand the wiring, but by 2000 E+H had sold a million units. It was probably then that the patents ran out, so now there are copy-cats around, trying to catch up. But Endress developed the technology and production, with a self checking high level, or tank overfill alarm, with hygienic versions, even with a corrosion monitoring system to warn of a future wet-side problem. Modern electronics can now use the Liquiphant vibrating forks as a liquid density measurement sensor. (Link)
This week IMA introduce the SpectraSensors TDL analyser system for monitoring moisture and H2S in samples extracted from process streams, quoted as a technique developed by NASA for a Mars probe. I had thought TDL was pioneered by Dow, as an in-line technique for process applications, monitoring water vapour in chlorine production, then commercialised by Yokogawa (http://www.processingtalk.com/news/whp/whp194.html). But now I discover that the Mars probe actually set off in 2004 (http://www.engineeringtalk.com/news/ixw/ixw100.html). Further down in the newsletter we also discover that two Goodrich Sensors Unlimited Shortwave Infrared (SWIR) cameras have recently helped NASA scientists to determine the presence of water on the moon: so they did see something from the impact of the rocket. The conclusion seems to be that optical measurement sensors are now being applied everywhere: on Mars, near the Moon, and in a process plant near you!

Which marketing campaign from a supplier can you remember

Which marketing campaign from a supplier can you remember? What style of campaign works for process or instrument engineers? I count myself as an (ex-) instrument engineer, and recently I have been on the receiving end of two distinctly different campaigns. Both have been memorable, but maybe that is because I find the analysis of marketing campaigns of interest.

The Food Processing Faraday, targeting engineers in the food production industry, adopted a consumer marketing approach, using four separate emails over a couple of months to introduce one aspect of their services, presented in a few words on a colourful html email. I even responded to one email asking if they had forgotten to attach the info relevant, a regular occurrence with PR. No response. Then the final hit was a letter: yes a real letter – with all four of their service ideas presented on a colourful set of cards, like a recipe collection. OK, now I throw them away, but I guess that is one way of saying “We can come up with innovative ideas”. (Link)
SolidWorks CAD software, from Dassault Systemes, has a similar problem, in that they are also selling a tool, ie a software system, to assist engineers in their design processes. Their email blast highlighted that Microsoft Office Excel is actually one of the most popular, yet under-utilized, engineering tools, and asked if you were maybe missing a chance to “improve your design productivity?” SolidWorks, in the person of Darren Henry, Director of Product Marketing, offered a free of charge screencast, covering 10 tips for transforming Excel from a basic spreadsheet programme to a powerful engineering application: like how to copy tabular data from a pdf file into a spreadsheet. Cutting through the buzz-words, the tips for driving more out of Excel are just brilliant. So good, that you are even impressed by the last demo showing how Excel spreadsheet input data can control all aspects of a SolidWorks model. This actually hit the objective: you could see what the capabilities of the software actually were – or perhaps I should say, are! That is marketing configured to impress an audience of engineers. (Link)
It was 15 years ago when I wrote a review of the potential for ultrasonic flowmeters, and while heaping praise on them in general, I said it would never ever be possible to measure the flow of gases with a clamp-on device. I still feel guilty when I see the reports of clamp-on ultrasonic flowmeters on gas applications, and there is another published this week, from Able Controls (Link). Thank goodness engineers never believe anything they read, without testing it!

Whither the ISA?

Whither the ISA? In his own inimitable style, this is the question asked by Eoin O’Riain of Read-out.net, in a blog entitled “Whether the ISA?” (Link). But the question is well asked, enquiring whether the ISA will find a role in the post-internet, post-recession world.

Magazines, websites (like Processingtalk and Read-out), industrial fora (like the ISA, InstMC), market research organisations (like ARC, IMS, SRI) and even standards/approvals organisations (like Baseefa, TuV, IEC) exist as an “overhead” service to manufacturers. Some would go so far as to say that we are parasitic organizations. We are only tolerated, financed and survive provided we continue to deliver a service that is economically acceptable to the manufacturers, and tailor the service to change as the need develops.

Many years ago, there were exhibitions. These were supported by lavish stands from the major suppliers, and people went there to see what was new. In the UK they were dying before the arrival of the internet, because the majors discovered it was more efficient to run their own shows, with conferences, calling them User Group Meetings. Then, later, the internet allowed everyone to have instant access to an exhibition and news of the latest products, sorted by subject area and industry, so the only reason for customers to attend a gathering was to interface with other similar users, and the user group discussion format was confirmed. The latest release from the ISA shows they are catching up, for 2010, with the ISA Automation Week focusing on the conference, as opposed to the show. Regrettably they are heading into the major problem that has developed even for the manufacturers, the big user conferences are too broad, not specific enough to create a user group with enough common interests. Plus the ISA cannot afford to support the meetings financially, like the Emersons, GEs, Yokogawae and Invensi of this world.

So whither the ISA? “The ISA is all about knowledge”, says the ISA President. So the ISA has to be the one place an automation professional will turn to, to learn something, instantly, via the web. Recently I criticised the WINA branch of ISA for a webinar on wireless instrumentation which had a price tag of USD40. There is another such webinar listed in the Processingtalk newsletter this week for USD40, alongside, and competing with, a lot of free webinars from the manufacturers. We all know the hit rate on “actually useful” information from Google is maybe 1 in 4: who will turn to the ISA to spend USD40 on a webinar that might have a 25% chance of being relevant? Certainly not the internet readers in India, Algeria, Argentina, and out of work or freelance engineers in the UK or anywhere else, and these are the community the ISA must lead, and provide access to. These are the people the major suppliers cannot readily access from their own resources.

The manufacturers will only support the ISA if it offers something they themselves cannot: if the ISA did become a source of impartial free knowledge, which is actually used, suddenly the manufacturers will spend time providing and contributing to the knowledge (so that their ideas are getting the right emphasis, of course), and supporting those ISA activities. Once the ISA only serves users that are the specialists in big US corporations, they provide nothing that the manufacturers do not already have on their databases.

My point is the same as Jon DiPietro of the Boston ISA branch, who also echoes Jim Pinto: “Sell scarcity, give away abundance” (Link). Jon goes as far as saying make ISA membership free, to build the network of automation professionals (Yes, I am an ex-ISA member, once the firm stopped paying for the subscription, and I reviewed the benefits at the time). The ISA should strive to build their network amongst the internet generation, give away the education, to establish the ISA position as the place for knowledge, and then will be able to sell the scarcity within, and the assets derived from having the network.

What proof is there this will work? Pro-Talk, and all the Talk sites, are built on the principle of free publication, free access to all news stories, free newsletters – free for readers and for manufacturers. It started in 2000 and initially had no income at all. The Talk sites are now consulted by maybe a million readers a month overall, because they have effectively established a known and trusted internet “exhibition”, a searchable database (of all active suppliers) that users can configure, and that they know has input from all the suppliers. Then Pro-Talk are able to sell advertising, because the manufacturers want to put a message in front of a certain profile of the user community – the ability to do that is the scarcity we can sell!

[Footnote: Centaur , the publishers, amalgamated the Pro-Talk websites with the Engineer website in Summer 2011: apparently they were not satisfied with the amount of advertising being sold!]

ATEX 137 mandatory requirements

Are ‘End Users’ of hazardous area equipment aware of the ATEX 137 Directive mandatory requirements, operative throughout the EU? This is the question that IMS Research was asked to investigate, by suppliers of such equipment, obviously confused by the feedback from their own sales engineers who had been approaching potential customers. IMS set up an emailed survey of process industry users in Europe and the Middle East: the responses showed that almost a quarter of the responsible managers in these plants were unaware of the mandatory requirements of the ATEX 137 Directive. (Link)
EU Directive 99/92/EC (also known as ‘ATEX 137′ or the ‘ATEX Workplace Directive’) describes the minimum requirements for improving the health and safety protection of workers potentially at risk from explosive atmospheres. In Great Britain the requirements of Directive 99/92/EC were put into effect through regulations 7 and 11 of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR).

The minimum requirements of these mandatory directives are that the employer must have classified his plant into Zones, to define any risk from the presence of explosive gases OR dusts, and he must ensure that properly classified equipment is in use in these zones. The different zones have to be marked, on entrances and exits. Now many plant managers would comment that they have been running for 20 years without a problem: this is also covered, in that equipment already in use before July 2003 can continue to be used indefinitely, PROVIDED THAT a risk assessment shows it is safe to do so. You have to do the work, and write, and record, that risk assessment.

More worrying from the IMS research, is that while they had 25% of respondents unaware of ATEX137, these were within the 150 responses that came from people who understood the question! What proportion of the rest of their database are not responding because they have no-one who is thinking about such safety?
Even within the respondents again, 20% of them felt their plants did not comply with ATEX137. Policing of these standards by government agencies is growing year by year, and the fines and shutdowns they impose can really damage your plant performance, almost as much as an explosion.

Consult the HSE website for explanations of current workplace regulations in the UK at least. (Link)