THE INSTRUMENTALITY OF THINGS
The area of process control, automation, and instrumentation
education is rather broad and thus very challenging. A four-year undergraduate
programme course may not suffice to train students for every possible
application in this field. On the other hand, employers expect graduates to
start working without a long gestational period of training or learning. Is
there a solution? Ideally, students must acquire sound fundamental knowledge in
the area alongside gaining solid exposure to applied theory. In addition, they
should also be trained to study and work independently as well as collectively.
Automation is the method of operating or controlling a process by automated means making use of electronic and computing devices, thereby reducing human intervention to a minimum. Today, most major industries processes are automated. Automation is a prized profession and needs engineers with expertise in Process Control, Electronics, and Instrumentation. In fact, automation lies at the heart of what instrumentation engineers do.
In scientific terms, instrumentation is defined as the art and science of measurement and control of process variables within a production or manufacturing area. Instrumentation engineering is a specialised branch of electrical and electronics engineering that deals with the principles and operations of measuring instruments and control devices in automated systems.
The discipline of instrumentation engineering branched out of the streams of electrical and electronics engineering sometime in the early part of the 1970s. It is a multidisciplinary stream and covers subjects from various branches, such as chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, electronics, and computers.
Almost all process and manufacturing industries, such as steel, oil, petrochemical, power, and defence production, have a separate instrumentation department manned and managed by instrumentation engineers. Textiles, pharmaceuticals, paper, metallurgy, automotives, marine, locomotives, and aerospace also require instrumentation engineers. The growth in avionics, aeronautics, and space science has also broadened the scope for instrumentation engineers. Bio-medicine is another area with significant scope for instrumentation professionals.
The instruments we see today were either non-existent or their earlier versions worked very differently until 10-15 years ago. Automation is ever changing, ushering in newer technologies in control systems for efficient production and manufacturing processes that require high-quality control systems. New trends in industrial automation also deal with the latest devices and communication protocols to control field devices.
Automation reduces manual intervention, increases productivity, reduces production and maintenance costs, and, in turn, improves product quality, flexibility, user friendliness, and overall safety.
Today, the Internet of Things (IoT) is bringing the benefits of automation and instrumentation to people’s homes. In everyday life, being able to monitor and control your premises is a major application of smart automation. Smart devices that make automation possible are growing in number and are becoming more technologically capable day by day. These integrated devices can communicate with one another, collect and evaluate data, take appropriate decisions and act so that human life becomes easier. Some examples of such devices are smart wearable technology that monitors health conditions, baby monitors, customised lighting systems, and traffic light that collects data on air quality.
A few more examples are smart-plugs that set each device or appliance to respond just to your presence; digital film that makes the window’s transparency controllable; air conditioners that automatically respond to preset limits of energy consumption; video chat integrated into a Wi-Fi powered doorbell; smart locks that replace the need for physical keys; and, cooking systems that can be controlled and monitored remotely.
There is more: intelligent smoke detectors that can send alert messages to remote locations; water meters with leak detectors; smart ventilation with humidity sensors and fan control systems; smart beds that actually respond to an individual’s or even a couple’s comfort levels and sleep schedules/ biological rhythms.
While IoT, Big Data and the Cloud may be the current buzzwords, the manufacturing industry is also aware of these trends and is seeking to transform many aspects of industrial automation in manufacturing in the near future.
In the world of industrial automation, apps are finding increasing use in helping to quickly access plant operating information from smart phones and tablets. Press an on-screen button and a customised view of a manufacturing facility quickly appears on the screen, ready for instant access.
With quick access to actionable information through apps, efficiency and productivity improve. Wireless access by remote devices and wireless transmission of data from sensors to control systems are becoming commonplace and is being augmented by the above trend.
As the PC becomes more powerful, its resources have, however, become more underutilised in many commercial and industrial applications. Instead, virtualisation provides a means to efficiently utilise these resources by allowing a variety of operating systems to run on a single PC. One typical industrial automation application consolidates multiple server-level functions such as I/O, database, and SCADA onto fewer PCs.
Many industrial automation trends are accelerated by the increasing use of industrial robots. Nowadays, robots driven by software and vision systems are being programmed to perform a variety of tasks, which dovetails into today’s demand for flexible manufacturing. Given a robot’s ability to work collaboratively and safely with humans and other robots, this trend can only grow.
THE ROLE OF AN INSTRUMENTATION ENGINEER
An instrumentation engineer typically designs, develops, installs, and manages equipment used to monitor and control machinery and processes. The tasks are domain dependent: instrumentation engineers work for industries employing automated processes to help improve productivity, reliability, safety, optimisation and stability. Instrumentation engineers are commonly responsible for integrating sensors, recorders, actuators, transmitters, displays, and control systems. They also design wiring and signal conditioning, and are responsible for calibration, testing, and maintenance of the system.
In the Instrument Engineers Handbook: Process Measurement and Analysis by Bela G. Liptak the job roles of an Instrumentation Engineer are described: “An instrumentation and control engineer is required to: design and develop control systems; maintain existing control systems; manage control systems; collaborate with design engineers, purchasers, and other staff members involved in the production processes; manage projects within the given constraints, including cost and time; troubleshoot to ensure that instruments comply with health and safety regulations; ensure that quality standards are maintained; and, provide consultancy support.”
As the trend of automation picks up in India and abroad, Instrumentation and Control Engineers are finding more and more job opportunities. From R&D to aerospace, pharmaceuticals, food, to thermal power, and from steel, fertilisers, automobiles, biomedicine, and refineries to cement, these engineers find job opportunities in almost all domains of the industrial world.
Apart from covering the core subjects of system dynamics, industrial instrumentation, process control, analytical and bio-medical instrumentation, and robotics, the students deal with software and hardware topics, such as microprocessor and micro controller-based instrumentation, VLSI (very-large-scale integration) and embedded system designs, computer architecture and organisation, and computer control of processes.
Instrumentation engineers also find employment in companies that make use of specialised instruments for their day-to-day operations. Popular companies that hire instrumentation engineers include National Instruments, Yokogawa, Emerson, Honeywell, ABB, Larsen & Toubro, Robert Bosch, Invensys, GE, Suzlon, Whirlybird, and ESSAR among a host of others.
PROGRAMMES IN INSTRUMENTATION
The top colleges in India for undergraduate courses in Instrumentation Engineering are IIT Kharagpur, Madras Institute of Technology, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, NIT Tiruchirappalli, and Banaras Hindu University.
The premier colleges for Instrumentation in Kerala are the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram and Rajagiri School of Engineering and Technology, Kochi.
Among the sought-after colleges for Instrumentation Engineering abroad, particularly in the United States, are Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley, California Institute of Technology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Illinois-Urbana- Champaign, Cornell University, Purdue University-West Lafayette, and Princeton University.