Safety Instrumented Systems

Thanks for the memories...

As the end of the year approaches it's always tempting to look back and review what’s happened over the past 12 months. For Mike Spear though, he's about to head off into the welcoming arms of retirement.

By Mike Spear

As the end of the year approaches it’s always tempting to look back and review what’s happened over the past 12 months. For me though, about to head off into what I hope will be the welcoming arms of retirement, that temptation takes on a far wider timescale. Back in 2005 when I started writing for CP, I said the role of editor at large was a new one for me. And so it was, but I had then already been writing and commenting on the chemical industry — mainly in the U.K. — for more than 30 years.

It’s precisely 43 years since I opened my first copy of Perry’s Chemical Engineers’ Handbook as a first-year chem eng student and 35 years since starting my career with a filtration company.

Now while reminiscing that far back might be fun for me, it’s probably not what today’s generation of engineers wants to read — unless that is they have a historical interest in antiquities such as sequential control systems running off cam timers and electromechanical relays, as confronted me on my first site assignment. Instead, given today’s pace of technological change, just reflecting on my time here with CP should serve up a reasonable snapshot of where the industry and its technologies are headed.

Appropriately enough, given my early traumas with maladjusted cam timers, that first End Point in June 2005 illustrated the enormous advances made in control technology over the years. A visit to that year’s Interkama exhibition in Germany showed fieldbus devices finally filling instrument vendors’ order books, and the first foundations being laid for today’s burgeoning interest in wireless technologies. That year also brought the first wave of safety instrumented systems, combining control and safety systems in a way that might well have horrified my long-gone cam timer colleagues.

Control apart, a few other recurring themes have cropped up on this page over the past 2½ years. Safety itself, in a broader context than control systems, is unfortunately never far from the headlines and prompted several observations here about accidents in the industry — by far the most serious being BP’s Texas City refinery disaster (see CP, July 2005 (July 2005, p. 58), although a little local difficulty here at home meant the Buncefield tank farm explosion and fire took on added significance as I looked out on the smoke pall for a few days.

As with safety, environmental issues have long been among the defining characteristics of the chemical industry. Perhaps with no other industry are the two so inextricably linked, and so tightly regulated. From my European perspective I have seen EU Directives like REACH, RoHS and WEEE take on increasingly global perspectives and begin to impact the U.S. and other chemical industries. In another environmental arena, however, the U.S. is setting the agenda as biofuels and biorefineries start to shape the green chemical industry of the future.

My brief when taking on the role of editor at large wasn’t restricted to writing just about industry and technology, however. Engineering, after all, is a profession and one that requires continual development on the part of its practitioners. The universities underpin this — as well as the development of future technologies — and academia has been the source of many reports on these pages. Although I might only have touched on them in the past couple of years, there are issues that to me have seemed perennial problems. When I graduated there were many of the same worries and concerns being expressed as now — shortages of engineers, underfunding of university research, attracting the best talents to the industry, and perhaps the most asked question of all, is engineering a good career choice anyway? A quick survey of leading chemical companies I did last year (September 2006, surely gave the answer to that by highlighting the number of chemical engineers in charge of many of those companies.

Not everyone can, or wants to, make it to those exalted levels, but the opportunities are undoubtedly there. It might be easy for me to say as I head west from CP (or should that be east?), but I firmly believe that chemical engineering is, always has been and will continue to be in the future, one of the most rewarding — in every sense of the word — professional career paths anyone could wish to take.

Mike Spear, editor at large, Herfordshire, U.K.

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