Exclusive interview “Promote a Better Mutual Understanding”

Editor: Doris Popp

NAMUR Chairman Dr. Wilhelm Otten is Director of Business Line Engineering at Evonik Industries. In an interview with PROCESS Editor-in-Chief Gerd Kielburger, he highlights the need to promote a better understanding between chemical/process engineers and their counterparts in measurement and control engineering.

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Dr. Wilhelm Otten, Director of Business Line Engineering at Evonik Industries
Dr. Wilhelm Otten, Director of Business Line Engineering at Evonik Industries
(Picture: PROCESS)

Mr. Otten, despite the fact that collaboration between chemical and process engineers and measurement and control engineers is becoming increasingly important, there still appear to be a lot of problems in the day-to-day working relationship. What is the extent of this mutual lack of understanding?

Otten: We actually have two problems. Process engineers still do not have sufficient understanding of dynamics and control engineering. That is one of the reasons for setting up our university working group. When you look at today’s Process Engineering departments, you will find that with very few exceptions students graduate without having ever heard of control engineering. That is simply not acceptable. Our process technology and our competitive advantage in terms of work efficiency, yields and system availability depend largely on the level of automation on our production lines. Nevertheless, 70% of our process engineers graduate without having an understanding of dynamic processes.

How do you plan to resolve that problem?

Otten: We have to make fundamental changes to the course content and promote a greater mutual understanding. On a day-to-day basis, teamwork is the only approach which produces genuine added value. The time has passed when you could optimize process development or control systems in isolation. Automation engineers need a good understanding of the process, and equally chemical and process engineers need to understand dynamic behavior in order to optimize their large production facilities.

Yet this is what provided the impetus for collaboration between Namur, ProcessNet and Dechema. Are you not satisfied with the mode of collaboration so far?

Otten: No, we are not.

What is the problem?

Otten: If for example you attend a ProcessNet conference and sit in on presentations covering topics which are pertinent to Namur, you see familiar faces. We have not succeeded in forging the link between process and automation engineering. In my opinion, you have to go right back to the educational phase. If during the educational process you do not impart a basic understanding of what is on the other side of the wall, it is very difficult to turn things around later on.

Do people at ProcessNet and Dechema share that view? Just a few years ago, automation engineers were regarded as service providers for design and production engineering.

Otten: Yes, but we are seeing a major shift in attitudes. It used to be the case that production engineers with a process or mechanical engineering background had responsibility for the budget and availability. A measurement and control engineer somewhere out there supported multiple production lines. When you look at Evonik today, for example the Wesseling plant, 50% of the measurement and control engineers have been given production engineering responsibility. Why? Because measurement and control engineering currently provides the most effective path to achieving operational excellence with the existing production assets.

Should more chemical and process engineers attend the Namur general meeting to gain a better insight into what automation engineering can currently deliver?

Otten: The answer is basically yes. We have started a bit further back and have allocated a certain amount of space for students. The selection of topics for the Namur general meeting is always a balancing act. A lot of people who attend are only interested in purely engineering aspects. To continue the measurement and control engineering success story, process management will have to take its place beside the pure engineering aspects. We will have to explain the advantages of that approach. We will be switching from an organization which is solely engineering driven to one that is management driven. If we want to move forward, we will have to expand our horizon beyond engineering.