#pAutomator: Bill WJ Steenberg, Control Systems and Instrumentation Engineer

For our #pAutomator today, we spoke to Bill WJ Steenberg, Control Systems and Instrumentation Engineer (France). Steenberg has around 30 years of contracting experience executing detailed engineering for clients, carrying out detailed EPC engineering as a discipline engineer, driving project management tasks, representing clients on turnkey contracts, engaging multi-engineering disciplinary teams, and much more.

In this conversation, he explains the transition of the world of control systems and instrumentation and what lies ahead. Excerpts from the interview are below…

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How do you see the evolution of control systems and instrumentation industry over the years?

Well, I come from a generation of instrumentation engineers who saw pneumatic instrumentation at its peak. That really dates me, doesn’t it? It was early days for DCS systems, Honeywell TDC 2000, the most well known at the time.

Also, shut down systems were relay-based. The instrumentation world exploded with analog transmitters, then with electronic chips. As such, stuff got smarter, before digital equipment did. DCS systems evolved and became more complex. PLCs evolved faster than you could keep track of and morphed into dedicated emergency shutdown systems. Then the new kid on the block arrived, wireless transmitters, wherein we could get rid of cables and cable racks. Field instrumentation is now programmable with microprocessors on board.

#pAutomator: Bill WJ Steenberg
#pAutomator: Bill WJ Steenberg

The field of process analysers has gone through its own revolution. Today’s instrumentation engineer has a whole lot of technology at hand that we did not have thirty years ago. The entire industry is just amazing. The career opportunities for specializing are almost endless.

How do you see the industry affected by the changing digital landscape?

Gathering data has given way to information which is the manipulation of data. So IT has become an important component of instrumentation, requiring transmission upwards in the communication hierarchy. There is a lot of buzz about the Internet of Things and what this poses as a new industrial revolution. I am not qualified to speculate on where this will lead. I am still acquainting myself with all the new IoT developments and their applications, to be honest.

Amidst all these changes, what is your big inspiration?

For me, the most important thing is making a difference in the community I work with.

You have also worked on emergency shutdown scenarios. What was this like?

There are two aspects to this. The first deals with rotating equipment, such as compressors, gas or steam driven turbines, pumps etc. The suppliers of this equipment (normally as part of the skid package) have their own emergency shutdown system on board. They normally favour a particular PLC system.

Then, the fun starts when the client won’t accept the supplier’s choice of hardware and insists they terminate all the safeguarding signals in junction boxes on the skid. These then interface with the client’s emergency shutdown system.

As a consequence, the safeguarding logic now needs to be programmed into the client’s emergency shutdown system. This is very often a minefield.

The other aspect is the client’s emergency shutdown system requirements of the process related equipment. These include vessels, columns, fired heaters, heat exchangers, fin fans, boilers, associated piping, flares to the atmosphere, storage tanks and spheres, etc.

 #pAutomator: Bill WJ Steenberg
#pAutomator: Bill WJ Steenberg

I have also been closely associated with the engineering, design and selection of the emergency shutdown valves that are required to isolate various sections of the plant. Many have had stringent specifications. For example, I had one 12” oxygen supply valve that needed to close 0.9 seconds after being tripped. Another was a 16” valve to open in 3 seconds and dump 110 tons per hour (110,000 Kg) of steam to the atmosphere to safeguard downstream piping exceeding its temperature limit.

It is all about safety and requires a focus on detail. The devil is in the detail.

What challenges do you generally face in your industry in terms of logistics, technology up-gradation, technical specs, configuration and integration?

Logistics involve everything from getting what you need from the suppliers and/or factory floor to the installation and construction crew in the field. I will give an example of what this meant when I worked in Bangladesh. We had to transport from the USA to Bangladesh. Including all the stages, this would typically take around 25 weeks. This is an area where you personally do not have control. So, the best plan is to let the logistics and expediting teams deal with it.

Technology up-gradation has been many an engineer’s nemesis. What’s new is not always what’s best for a project. Especially if it is an alpha version and its track record is still to be established. This is an important consideration for equipment that requires SIL verification and the available statistical data in the associated calculations.

With regard to challenges faced with technical specs, configuration & integration, the best is still to have a hotline to the equipment specialists.  Develop a personal relationship with them so that knowledge is just a call away. Having to troll through pages of technical information is frustrating. Product training on instruments and products is essential and never given due consideration to the average project.  

You have also been a part of the mentoring team for instrumentation engineers. What role does leadership play?

Being a leader means defining and exhibiting moral and ethical courage and setting an example for everyone in the company. It also helps you teach leadership skills to your employees, who will then do the heavy lifting of moving the company from where it is today to where it needs to be.

 #pAutomator: Bill WJ Steenberg
#pAutomator: Bill WJ Steenberg

As a mentor, you need to assess each mentee’s current level of skill, academic background, knowledge and emotional intelligence. Some will feel a little insecure, doubting they can actually do it, while some others are arrogant and think they already know all there is to know. With all of this in mind, the mentor must have a clear picture of what personal development he or she wants to help them with and what tasks he or she needs to prepare them for and lead the way.

And how does it affect the technical breakthrough required in the industry?

It all begins with a due recognition of the mentors and the invaluable contribution they can make to the current generation of young engineers and the next generation to come. Mentoring is a challenge to itself. Not all are able to share and transfer skills; not all are willing to share and transfer their skills. Proper identification of potential mentees is the flip side of the coin. Many want to be “managers” as soon as possible with no intention of doing actual engineering. Others, unfortunately, are square pegs in round holes.

The breakthrough in the  industry will come when suitable mentors and selected mentees are brought together with the objective of delivering the next crop of skilled engineers and we all know that it is engineers that change the world for the better, as one company’s ad slogan says it all;  ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ – “Being Ahead through Technology”.

What would you suggest or recommend to the young engineers of tomorrow?

The instrumentation field is an exciting one that brings about change on an ongoing basis. An instrumentation engineer’s challenge is to stay abreast of developments. Not only do they have a diversity of reliable and accurate measurement technology to draw from, they also face a diversity of applications and processes. Because of this, the instrumentation engineer’s involvement is crucial so that process engineers can realize and accomplish desired process control strategies.

If the young engineers of tomorrow want an exciting, fulfilling and challenging career they should choose the instrumentation field. It is still evolving and what was once impossible is now possible as technology grows with leaps and bounds.

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