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What Does a Process Control Engineer Do?

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  • Originally Written By: Cassie L. Damewood
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2016
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Process control engineers typically design, implement, and oversee a range of different software-driven automation systems. The job can vary a lot from setting to setting; some of these professionals work in factories with machines involved in complex production, for instance, whereas others work in labs overseeing pharmaceutical production, or in the aerospace industry maintaining the integrity of space and aircraft maintenance, to name a few possibilities. In nearly all cases, though, the core elements of the job are about the same. All engineers usually spend a lot of time interacting with customers, clients, management, and support personnel to ensure the smooth operation of automation and controls. In-depth knowledge of testing, start-up procedures, and system integration options is also usually necessary, and professionals usually also need to be skilled in assessing documentation requirements and generating designs. Getting started in the job usually requires at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, though further education and in-field experiences are almost always really helpful, too.

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Understanding the Job Generally

In a broad sense, process control engineering is a way of assuring quality and integrity in the production of some highly specific or specialized product. Most engineers work with large-scale processes, usually involving steel and metalwork or polymer resins, as seen in most big production facilities. Smaller scale or more nuanced projects can also require the expertise of these technicians, though. No matter the substance at issue, most modern manufacturing is automated, which means it’s controlled by machines — machines that, in turn, are usually executing a series of commands as directed by a certain software or other computer program.

The control engineer’s job is sometimes to design these programs, but almost always to implement and execute them. This usually involves compiling data and actually executing the applications in the first place, and usually also testing and tweaking to ensure the right results. There’s also usually a lot of teamwork involved, both in terms of coordinating employees and support staff but also maintaining communication with clients and answering so as to establish and maintain a strong business relationship.

Programming and Data Compilation

The engineer must have demonstrated proficiency in the development and management of process control solutions, from collecting data through the design, configuration, and integration processes. He or she must be competent in programming and the development and implementation of engineering guidelines and standards. Knowledge of batch process manufacturing software programming as well as in Visual Basic and PC networking is usually essential.

Testing and Implementation

Running trials and diagnosing problems early is another big part of the job. The engineer must be able to look at the “big picture” of the programs being run and look for ways of both maximizing efficiencies and reducing the possibilities for error. A lot of this is very technical work, but much of it is also personnel and team-driven.

Importance of Clear Communication

There are many departments involved in process controls, which makes clear and concise communications imperative to the control engineer’s success. He or she must be an inspirational team leader and must usually be able to independently make decisions. Project management is a large part of the job, and upon completion of each project, the engineer must usually be able to provide detailed documentation of the project from inception through completion.

In most cases, this sort of engineer is often required to perform many tasks in a typical workday. As project goals and guidelines are altered by clients and potentially also technical problems, the engineer must be able to accurately assess the situation. He should then be able to present alternate solutions based on his knowledge and experience as well as that of his colleagues.

Interpersonal Skills and Teamwork

Besides technical knowledge and expertise, the position requires exemplary interpersonal relationship skills. The success of each project and the subsequent satisfaction of clients depends on this person's ability to not only lead by example but also inspire support personnel to be creative, supportive of each other's ideas and efforts, and goal-oriented. He should demonstrate understanding of the project team's goals and provide appropriate technical guidance on design and engineering issues. The process control engineer needs to keep abreast of emerging technologies and applications to guarantee a competitive edge in the industry in which he works.

Education and Getting Started

The educational requirements for a process control engineer can vary greatly depending on the specific position and industry. An undergraduate degree in electrical, chemical, or computer engineering is usually preferred, and advanced or more nuanced programs at the graduate level are often helpful, too. The number of years experience required varies with the industry, position and job responsibilities. In some cases, engineers may need to be professionally certified before beginning work.

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SkyWhisperer
Post 5

@NathanG - I think it’s beneficial in any profession to have a detailed knowledge of processes. My dad worked as an accountant once for a big oil company. He decided to do a study of the entire refinery, using not only notes that he had gathered but more importantly by interviewing people in different parts of the process.

He was able to gather enough information that he put together a master flowchart of how the whole system operated, much to the surprise of his colleagues. They were all able to confirm that he had indeed demonstrated a correct understanding of the process, and the company used his schematic in some of their publications.

NathanG
Post 4

@allenJo - I’d think you’d need some knowledge of the details of the process as well as understanding the whole picture. This would involve some familiarity with instrumentation, like understanding how a thermostat works to regulate temperature inside of a closed system, whether it’s an oil refinery or something else.

allenJo
Post 3

In one of my engineering courses in college they discussed process control systems. I think in an attempt to be humorous, my professor showed us a slide of a Rube Goldberg cartoon.

You’ve probably seen these yourselves without knowing what they are called. They are basically complex mechanical contraptions made with tracks, balls, pinions and levers, and their basic purpose is to do a simple task in a complex (visually humorous) manner. You’ve seen them in old cartoons in the labs of the mad scientist.

I think the point that he was making is that a process control system has many moving parts and inputs into the system, like temperature or crude oil for example, but that it has one output. The process control engineer has to monitor all the inputs and the entire system so that he gets the same product every time.

Mammmood
Post 2

I agree that knowing Visual Basic is almost a requirement in working in any number of automation jobs. The reason is that Visual Basic is an easy scripting language which can be used in a variety of desktop applications that you would use as an analyst.

You can easily create sophisticated macros in Excel that will automate your calculations for number crunching tasks that are a part of your process control engineering responsibilities.

I think most automation jobs typically involve a lot of testing, quality control and repetitive procedures. They lend themselves well to scripting languages that can automate these tasks without requiring mastery of complex programming languages. I used Excel Visual Basic macros in one of the jobs that I had and I was able to reduce a process that took an engineer all day down to a few minutes.

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