Who will be in your control room in 2016?

Demographic inevitabilities are going to cause huge changes in our workforces over the next few years. Are you ready?


Take a look at the people in your control room: you probably see a lot of gray hair. How many of those individuals are still going to be there in another three or five years? To answer this question, we need to look at the retirement rate of the baby boomers that are now between the ages of 55 to 65. On January 1, 2011, the first baby boomers turned 65. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, dated January 30, 2008, the retirement of baby boomers will affect the overall economy and our industries until the year 2020. The industries affected most will be those that have been part of the structure of the U.S. industry buildup: steel and primary metals, power generation, paper makers, forestry, and so on.

Every day, 7,000 baby boomers reach the age of 65. If you look at the makeup of the control room, you will see that the average age in the control room is probably in the 50 to 65 year range. That is a lot of life and process experience that we don’t want to see walking out the door. But, if we just look at this fraction of the population in the larger picture, we will see a marked decrease in the number of old timers in the control room. So, the inevitable question arises, how do managers and human resource departments keep the knowledge level in the control room at a level high enough to ensure optimal operation? 

With the number of control systems in our industries that are projected to become obsolete (and requiring upgrades), the best solution would be to use the in-house knowledge available now and develop documentation on how the current plant operates. And, you should do this as soon as possible. This documentation, developed by your in-house experts, will ensure that their knowledge will be preserved and relayed to operators coming up through the ranks. 

The only problem with this idea, as I have heard from people at several power stations, is that at current manpower levels, experienced people simply cannot get free from the panels in the control room long enough to do this. One solution is to use an engineering firm to come in and develop the documentation. Hopefully, those people will talk to the operators and get the low-down on operational requirements that have been passed down from operator to operator. The engineering firm can then develop the logic from the current configuration for the migration. 

So, let’s rephrase the question and ask, who do you want sitting in your control room in 2016? Hopefully, with due diligence and research, you will find an engineering firm that specializes in control system migration and has an excellent record for ensuring that experiences from the operators are placed in the documentation and built into the upgraded control system. Migrating to a new control system should not be a kind-in-kind replacement. Some systems have been operating for 20 or more years and things have changed considerably since their inception. To help your company and yourself, it is best to start with a clean slate and incorporate all the tribal knowledge from the operators into the new control system. With this, you will end up with a well-documented control system, including the ability to train the up-and-coming control operators.

This post was written by Bill Tolrud. Bill is a senior engineer at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading system integrator providing industrial automation, operational support, and control systems engineering services in the manufacturing and process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, and business process optimization. The company provides a full range of automation and controls services – ranging from PID controller tuning and HMI programming to serving as a main automation contractor. Additionally MAVERICK offers industrial and technical staffing services, placing on-site automation, instrumentation and controls engineers.

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