#pAutomator: Rajabahadur V Arcot, Industry Analyst
Today´s #pAutomator is Rajabahadur V Arcot, Independent Industry Analyst. Rajabahadur has worked for companies like Honeywell, Thermax, Bells Controls an affiliate of Foxboro/Invensys, Electronics Corporation of India Limited and Instrumentation Limited. His focus areas include distributed generation, renewable energy, smart grid, industrial control system & critical infrastructure industry cyber-security, sustainable manufacturing, Industry 4.0 trends, and IoT.
Strongly opining on system engineering as the way forward for industrial firms that want to exploit the power of IIoT and maximize benefits of OT-IT convergence, he believes that the best-of-the-breed solutions will come from IT and OT vendors, system engineering will be the key to integrate them to create value to end users. He also plans to write a book on Systems Engineering and its expanded role in the new era of Industry 4.0.Well that sounds interesting!! Excerpts from the interview…
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Can you tell our readers how you began your career in the process automation industry?
In 1964, with a master’s degree in Physics (Electronics), I joined India’s first automation company, Instrumentation Limited (IL). I joined as a design engineer of electronic instruments and transmitters. The country then was taking tentative steps to industrialize. To meet this objective, the Indian State had negotiated technology transfer agreements with some developed countries like England and Germany to build and fund industrial plants. IL was one such State-Owned Enterprise.
It was established with the assistance of the Soviet Union, now Russia, to make electronic indicators, recorders and transmitters. I was recruited by the company, and that gave me a unique opportunity to be an integral part of IL’s growth, contribute to its emergence as a leading supplier of instrumentation and control (I&C) systems, and immensely benefit from personal experience.
Upon recruitment, I was sent to I&C plants in St. Petersburgh and Kirovakan for one year to learn about the design and production of instruments, such as potentiometric and bride indicators and recorders, moving-coil meters. Thus started my career as an I&C engineer.
I found the journey fulfilling, enriching and rewarding. It gave me opportunities to meet and network with industry veterans and thought leaders, and to work closely with many leading automation companies. This includes those that have either been consigned to history or taken over by others, like George Kent, Babcock Bristol, and Leeds and Northrup. Most importantly, the journey continues.
What has been the major achievement for you in your career, in terms of automation and control systems in process industries (any milestones)? Looking back, how do you see the evolution of this industry?
After a brief stint in the design department, I was given the responsibility to establish the Systems-Engineering Group (SEG) that would design, engineer, supply, erect, and commission I&C systems especially to process plants, such as thermal power and steel.
I developed the team and competencies. Together as a team we contributed to IL’s emerging as a leading turn-key supplier of I&C systems / Main Automation Contractor (MAC) to various process industries.
The task was challenging for us. I visited some process industries and spent a few months studying their I&C systems, learning about the selection criteria of instruments for various applications, installation procedures, project documentation and drawings, among other things.
The company arranged for a couple of I&C system engineering experts from Russia’s Engineering Cells to come down to India and help us establish the SEG. Receiving the order from a thermal power plant of 60 MW capacity to supply the I&C system on a turnkey basis encouraged us to build the required competences quickly.
As part of the project and contract execution, we developed the entire range of necessary drawings and documents, such as P&IDs, loop diagrams, and cable & impulse pipeline drawings. The Russian experts helped us develop the associated standards, such as instrumentation symbols, numbering systems, etc., in-house.
In hindsight, setting up the Systems Engineering Group was IL’s most appropriate strategic decision. It helped IL overcome the initial reluctance of process industries in India to accept the use of electronic I&C systems (which constituted a major share of the company’s offering then), in place of pneumatic systems. It enabled IL to emerge as leading turn-key supplier of I&C systems / Main Automation Contractor (MAC). That era was dominated by pneumatic instruments.
As a consequence of the success of the company as a MAC, IL expanded its production capabilities to include electronic controllers, control valves & actuators, flow devices such as flow nozzles, analytical instruments, and control panels & desks. Subsequently, the group developed and supplied sequence event recorders, first-up annunciator systems, data acquisition systems (DAS) that ran on IBM 1800 and HP 21 MX computers.
IL also secured numerous turnkey orders from various process industries. It even won a World Bank-funded export order from Malaysia for the supply of I&C systems, including DAS for 120 MW capacity thermal power plants.
Looking back, I believe that my upfront association with building the system engineering competencies and capabilities helped me to stay in sync with the evolution of automation technology. Above all, it has immensely helped me in the advancement in my professional career.
After more than 15 years of a fulfilling association with IL, I joined Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL). Their primary focus is to meet the country’s nuclear industry needs. I was responsible for establishing its Control Systems Group. We developed India’s first PLC, DAS, and SCADA systems and supplied them to power plants, cement and steel plants and pipeline projects.
Later, at the invitation of Bells Controls (the former Indian affiliate of Foxboro/Invensys), and as its General Manager, I set up its systems engineering group. This went on to engineer and supply Foxboro’s IA DCS in India.
Subsequently, I was involved in restructuring the Electronics Division of Thermax. This sought to achieve a complete turn-around and secure a strategic alliance partnership with Fuji Electric to manufacture transmitters in India. In the mid-nineties I joined SACDA, a simulation system supplier, which was later taken over by Honeywell.
I worked at its Singapore office and then returned to India. In 1997 I set up the ARC Advisory Group’s South and South East Asia business operations. This position lasted for about 15 years. I conducted market research work, wrote technology and industry reports, whitepapers, provided strategic consulting services, and organized numerous seminars and forums for the industry.
What are the major challenges an instrumentation engineer faces today to meet the increasing customer demands?
Industrial automation is center stage. It plays a major role in empowering manufacturing companies to gain sustainable competitiveness and enhances efficiency and productivity. The growing dependence of industrial companies on the success of real-time information availability drives the convergence of OT and IT.
We are thus entering a new industrial era, Industry 4.0, that will rely on developing technologies, such as Industrial Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Big and Fast Data Analytics, and Cloud Computing. The job of instrumentation engineers will no longer be to work only with sensors, transmitters, controllers, and actuators.
It will also be to leverage rapidly evolving technologies to meet industry demands. Continuous learning is the way forward for them to be successful in their professional careers. Instrumentation professionals’ major challenge will be to continually keep updating their skills and acquiring new ones, often through self-learning.
Technical knowhow is essential for engineers today. Given the current global scenario, what are the main areas of expertise that an engineer should focus on?
The skills required in the industry will keep changing and the pace will only increase in the future. Engineers succeed when they possess technical skills and the ability to apply them effectively. This is all the more true in the case of automation professionals because automation is multidisciplinary and continually evolving.
The skill set that will be required are rapidly emerging technologies such as IIoT, Data Analytics, and others, as they are expected to profoundly influence the I&C systems of the future.
These technologies are vulnerable to cyber threats, and therefore companies will need security specialists. These technical skills apart, the skills required to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will include soft skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, and people management. Automation professionals can become ready for the future with skills that the industry 4.0 era demands.
The skill gap issue is inherent to the transformational changes taking place in the industry, evolving occupational opportunities, and expectations.
You have been actively involved in executing automation projects and training workshops. What do you think is really necessary to encourage young engineers to make the most of the instrumentation industry today?
One of the major challenges of the manufacturing industry is that it is not able to attract talent. This situation is also true in the case of the instrumentation industry. Yet another challenge that is specific to instrumentation industry is that not many educational institutions offer full-time automation courses.
Even when such courses are available, not many enroll in them. Many job entrants are not aware that automation professionals’ careers are highly rewarding, both professionally and financially, and their job satisfaction remains high. Overall awareness of the long–term career prospects of instrumentation professionals is low, and the industry must address this issue.
Compared to other industry verticals, the automation industry is not a major creator of jobs. This is despite the fact that all industry verticals employ automation engineers. Most often, though, those with other technical domain qualifications, such as electrical and mechanical, outnumber them.
This situation may change drastically with the rapid convergence of OT-IT and the emergence of the Industry 4.0 era. For this to happen, automation companies must steer the Industry 4.0 initiative. They cannot leave it to technology companies like Google, IBM, and others. The automation industry must proactively create an overall awareness of the long–term career prospects of instrumentation professionals.
The collaboration of the industry and academia has become essential today. What is your view on this? How can this attract young engineers to process automation?
Automation professionals may be working in automation companies or in other industry verticals and in different disciplines, such as systems engineering, cyber security, and others. The essential competencies required for automation professionals will depend on the industry and functional needs.
Fundamentally, automation engineers need to have technical competencies. They must master automation basics regarding sensors and transmitters, automatic control principles, and signals and communication protocols. Information technology is the foundation on which state-of-the-art control systems rest. Therefore, it is crucial for automation professionals to have a sound working knowledge of information technology.
Automation companies must reach out to academic institutions and collaborate with them. They can help formulate appropriate syllabi that leave students with necessary technical skills and essential soft skills.
Additionally, automation companies and industrial firms must provide internship opportunities for students and identify projects for them. Such collaboration would be a win-win situation for all the stakeholders – the industry, students, and the academic institutions
With Automation technology continually evolving, skill development programs must also cover professionals already in service. The industry must organize training programs that aim at updating the competencies of those already in the service.
Moving ahead, do you have any suggestions for the next generation of engineers?
The next generation of automation engineers will have exciting career opportunities. They will have to deal with constantly evolving technological developments and industry needs.
Therefore, prepare yourself to take the path of continuous learning. You should be ready to acquire newer and newer skills if you plan on becoming an automation engineer. Those who prepare themselves not only to seize opportunities but also to meet and overcome evolving associated challenges will certainly be successful.
As automation professionals move up the career ladder, they must acquire competencies other than those that are related to technology. These might be in automation project-management, production process domain knowledge, executive management capabilities, information technology skills, and others. This way, they can perform widely varying executive roles and be of value to their employers.