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SA Instrumentation & Control Buyers' Guide


Letter to the editor
September 2017, News

Dear Sir,

The combination of your editorial the ARC Advisory report and the Gavin Halse column in the July SAI&C, prompted this response.

The situation regarding current and future staffing is intriguing: even with a conventional, 4-20 mA plant, staffing is less than optimal at most of these. How do we know? Delegates at our various courses in topics related to control, often claim that their reason for attending is to ‘fill in some of the gaps’. By the end of almost any of these courses, it is obvious that the ‘gap’ is actually a ravine. Most maintenance staff seem to get by with a mixture of trial-and-error, and memory (last time the fault was X, let’s see if it’s the same again). Much of the problem seems to start at school level, and doesn’t improve from there.

Another part of the problem is that thinking is not taught, and many students appear to learn only how to pass exams, without the understanding that should be a part of their education. Another part is that mental arithmetic is no longer taught, with the result that most people reach for a calculator to convert between milli Amps and Amps (not to mention that they are not sure whether to multiply or divide). This lack often means that measurements are taken without knowing what the expected result should be, and therefore not knowing whether or not the measurement is correct. And this is just at the instrument maintenance level. Now compound this by bringing digital data communication into the mix, and then adding big data, plus Artificial Intelligence.

When it comes to loop control, chemical engineers often make the transition to this discipline quite effectively. This is probably aided by a better operations understanding than the equivalent instrumentation technician or engineer. However, there is a lot more to effective control than understanding the algorithms involved, and a part of this is understanding the interaction between the process and the instruments and, in particular, final control elements. Then there is the question of whose responsibility it is – shouldn’t it lie with the person responsible for instrumentation and control?

Along the same lines, who should take responsibility for the IT component? Here one could argue that the form the information capture should take (i.e. which is the most relevant and actionable information, and which form the action should take) should be a joint venture between the C&I practitioner, and the person most familiar with the process and how it can be improved. Obviously the lines are blurring here, and perhaps that is a good thing. Someone (I think it was Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline) pointed out that the most fertile area for improvement is at the overlap, where ideas from different points of view, can interact effectively. So add process, C&I and IT together, and the possibilities for some creative improvement are multiplied. And this is just for continuous (usually chemical) processes.

Now add Industrie 4.0/IIoT into the mix. Unfortunately, politicians have heard this phrase, and obviously don’t appreciate what it implies. Comments like “Industrie 4.0 will save Africa” are being spouted, without realising the Industrie 4.0 sounds the death-knell for unskilled labour, and in Africa, including the RSA, the necessary skills are thin on the ground.

This ties in with what was spoken about above: that a rethink about education and training is urgently needed. Firstly, from the Grades up, people need to be encouraged to think and to argue, as a necessary first step to true learning and understanding. Secondly, they need to comprehend that understanding is underpinned by prior understanding, and that an exam doesn’t signal that a reset button can be pressed on what came before. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it should be impressed on them that learning should become a lifelong habit, fed by curiosity. In our field, one of the givens is change. From an early age, children need to be reminded that education is preparing them for change, and that means ongoing individual and collective growth.

For one, it means that educators must be prepared for this themselves, and create in the learners an excitement and expectation around change and growth. For another, it means that employers must also embrace the expectation of change, and the possibilities for improvement that this brings (which also means that questioning of the status quo must be a given).

In conclusion, Prof Sylvan Blignaut of NMMU, in the 8 June edition of The Star, (talking about the failure of Curriculum 2005), states: “One of the reasons was a lack of alignment between the school curriculum and teacher education in universities and colleges. Another was a lack of capacity and support for teachers whose opinions and feelings about the curriculum were not taken into consideration.” It left many teachers feeling hopeless or inadequate. This can be extended to bosses during their career, who also need a shift in the way they accept questions.

This means that not only their teachers, but also their future mentors, need to have something of a mindshift. Mentors should include their supervisors, who also need to realise that they must be playing a role in improving plant performance, by getting the maximum from their charges.

Where do we start?

Eric Carter,


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