Process instrumentation and control (I&C) typically represents 15% of the cost of an average industrial project. It’s a high-tech discipline critical to the success and survival of a plant and yet is typically learned “on the job.” Many people working in that field lack the proper training needed to make appropriate decisions. An error could result in a very expensive situation.
As older, experienced I&C technicians and engineers are retiring, younger generations are faced with the daunting task of assuming responsibilities for which they aren’t trained. However, in most cases, there’s insufficient time (nor adequate budgets) to train technical personnel. Lack of money fosters lack of training, which leads to wrong decisions and expensive corrections.
With our present situation of operating with skeleton staff, everyone is busy — dare I say 24/7? Most managers recognize the need for training, but how can a manager justify sending employees to a course? Where will the money come from and who would assume additional responsibility while the employee is away on training?
Face-to-face versus interface
For a person who needs to learn about I&C, the two most common forms of training are face-to-face courses, where the employee typically travels to a distant location where the class is conducted, and e-learning, where the employee uses a computer to learn while remaining at the home base.
A multitude of face-to-face courses are available. However, the majority of them, available from major vendors and some organizations, aren’t in a sequential format that allows a person to start with the basics and move on to more complex topics. In addition, and quite often, these courses are geared for someone who already has a good knowledge of I&C.
How about those who want to learn about I&C in an organized fashion, in a condensed time frame, from a practical point of view, with training funds in limited supply and with time off from work being close to impossible. The solution is e-learning. This approach provides training without the student having to travel — keeping the personnel on site. With e-learning, the costs of training are minimized. E-learning allows student to progress at a relatively convenient pace. With good instructional material, fit to the course, students learn and pass exams to confirm their acquired knowledge.
E-Learning comes in different formats. The two most common types are:
- DVDs or material downloaded from the Web. These are typically self-guided and self-study programs generally geared for the knowledgeable I&C person who needs training in a very specific area.
- Online Web-based courses with a teacher available to answer questions the students submit through e-mail at any time, or through a virtual classroom on a weekly basis generally set in the evening for an hour or so. The instructor typically answers within a day or two.
Online has limitations
I’ve successfully instructed “face-to-face” I&C courses for more than 10 years in many industrial plants, at ISA functions and at several North American universities, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Kansas, the University of Toronto and Dalhousie University. Recently, I started online training at two North American Universities. At the beginning, I was hesitant about the potential effectiveness and success of online training. However, I have now changed my mind. In addition to avoiding the effects of cost and time lost away from the workplace, online training has proven to be effective for the students.
Online I&C training, when accompanied by good quality course notes, quizzes and exams, provides students with the knowledge and confidence needed to grasp this field of technology. These I&C programs are applicable to technical and supervisory personnel. For such courses to be effective, it’s presumed that participants come from a setting in which they can apply the knowledge learned.
Online learning can replace many face-to-face courses — but not all. On the plus side, online learning provides cost savings and allows student to study at their own pace without leaving their day-to-day job. On the negative side, the teacher-student interaction is slightly reduced (but is still available through either audio or written communication). In addition, online learning can’t provide hands-on training such as instrument maintenance. Dedicated training facilities provide such training, often at a vendor facility.
Details and course content
A typical and complete I&C online course could be presented in three modules spread over a year. It would cover the different phases of I&C, preferably from a nonmathematical, practical point of view. Including theory such as Laplace Transform, Bode Plots and the like in an I&C practical course has little value in day-to-day plant operation. And speaking from personal experience, this type of theoretical information would be forgotten shortly after the course is completed.
The three modules could include the basic concepts, the engineering and the installation of I&C equipment. The spread over one year allows students to apply and practice some of the information learned on a gradual basis. It also avoids information overload for students.
Each module should require about two months to complete and include its own online quizzes, followed by an online exam. I’ve found through personal experience that the following distribution balances time and learned information:
- Module 1 starting in the fall (typically early October) to follow the summer vacation time
- Module 2 starting in January of the following year
- Module 3 starting in May (avoiding the March break period) and finishing before the July vacation time
It’s my opinion that the three modules should include a variety of topics scheduled in a logical sequence covering the field of I&C. This would include:
- The basics of I&C including the different control functions, the types of control loops and continuous vs. discrete control
- The identification and symbols used in I&C
- The different types of field instrumentation, their principle of operation, the advantages and disadvantages, and the application of the different types of sensors for flow, level, pressure and temperature measurements, as well as for control valves
- The requirements for control rooms and the design of control panels
- The concepts and implementation of alarm and trip systems
- The different types of computer-based control systems including PLCs and DCSs as well as review the basic requirements for good operator interface
- The documentation required for I&C, for front-end engineering and for detail design
- The requirements for a successful installation, instrument checkout and controller tuning
- Project implementation and project management
- Decision making tools — auditing, evaluation of plant needs, justification and control system evaluation
To the best of my knowledge, such online I&C training programs are presently being taught in North America at two locations: in the United States at the University of Kansas Continuing Education (www.continuinged.ku.edu) and in Canada at the Dalhousie University Continuing Education (http://collegeofcontinuinged.dal.ca).
These organizations offer a University Certificate that is awarded after the successful completion of the three modules, the quizzes and the final exams. The modules represent about 150 classroom hours. The universities recommend that participants participate in modules 1, 2 and 3 in their sequential order. However, students with prior subject knowledge have taken the modules in a different order and have successfully passed the quizzes and exams.
Employers know that knowledge can help avoid unnecessary mistakes that cause downtime and waste money. An online I&C certificate program lets employers avoid the lost time and travel expenses of face-to-face courses. It allows employees to acquire, at their own pace, the I&C know-how needed for the successful implementation and operation of I&C systems and components. At the same time, they earn a University Certificate that confirms their acquired knowledge.
As a final note, if you think that education is expensive, consider the cost of ignorance.
N. (Bill) Battikha, P.E. is an independent consultant in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.