| Larry Bachus
(a.k.a. "The Pump Guy")
I talk with Don about once a month. Don is an old friend and occasional associate. We have some common interests. Once, we both lost money on a bad investment. In our last exchange, Don commented, “We see totally engaged automation in so many varied industries like commercial aviation and household automatic dishwashing machines. What holds the process industry back from full-blown automation?
I responded, “I can write all week to answer that question. But briefly, the answer is: valuable information is lost with time; useful information is ignored; and necessary information is purposefully misplaced or thrown into the trash.
Let me explain …
Primitive man could walk into a forest and pick his food—he knew the edible vegetation from the toxic vegetation. He knew which herbs were medicinal and hallucinogenic. He knew which plants could cure an infection and which plants could ease the pain of childbirth.
Today, the produce manager at the grocery store tells us what plants we can eat and how to prepare them. I’d starve if I had to walk into the woods and pick my dinner. Today, I go to the pharmacy for drugs. How did we lose this information?
5,000 Years Ago, 500 Years Ago, 50 Years Ago
Five thousand years ago, the early astronomers knew the Earth was round. They followed the stars and planets at night, plotting their trajectories. They knew when and where the next eclipse would occur.
Sly astronomers would approach a village and demand all the money from the residents. They threatened to make the sun disappear if not given the booty. When the villagers refused, the eclipse would begin.
The frightened townspeople raced home to gather their gold coins. When the rogues were satisfied, they announced, “Now I’ll bring back the sun.” Just then, the eclipse faded, and the light returned. The rascals would wait for the next eclipse and move on to loot the next village.
Five hundred years ago, the sailors on the ships with Columbus wanted to return to Spain. They thought they might fall off the edge of the Earth.
Fifty years ago, almost all industrial pumps had gauges. Field Operators stood next to the pumps. The operators interpreted the gauges, actuated the valves, and changed the filter screens.
We are alive today because of the things our ancestors knew many generations ago. Somewhere along the path from the past to the present, the older generations stopped teaching these things to the younger generations.
When I was a child, the hospitals were managed by the surgeons. The pilots ran the airlines. Oil exploration companies were run by the senior geologists. The metallurgists ran the steel mills, and engineers managed the refineries and power plants. (If you doubt me, ask your father or grandfather.)
For some reason, many companies and whole industries were bought by traders, accountants and speculators with no vested interest in the company’s heritage or employees. The surgeons, pilots and engineers were pushed aside. The accountants and traders downsized the field operators and tradesmen.
They were replaced by a few control room operators. Today, the control room operator is isolated in an explosion-proof control room. Why install instrumentation on process pumps if no one is going to interpret the information on the gauges? Therefore, process pumps and other equipment don’t carry adequate instrumentation, and the process industry’s movement toward automation is paralyzed today (similar to the stalled Mean Time Between Failure statistics).
Modern Corporate Culture
The new corporate director of Human Resources calls the 55-year old senior employee (mechanic, equipment operator, or instrumentation technician) into the office and announces that the company is downsizing the staff. The HR director says the senior employee will be phased out in two months. The HR director tells the senior employee that his final assignment is to train his replacement, a 25-year-old kid with a university sheepskin.
The old guy stares blankly at the HR director and thinks, “Screw the company, and let the young guy figure it out for himself.” You can bet the senior employee DIDN’T teach the junior employee what he needed to know to do the job correctly.
Therefore, today’s technicians and engineers have no leadership or mentors. Broken gauges are not replaced. No one does regular instrumentation calibration or maintenance. No one orders to install instrumentation onto new equipment. The process plant that used to employ 40 instrumentation technicians, now employs one or two technicians. No one can lead the industry toward automation. We secretly pray the next $50k digital gadget will show us the way to reliable pumps.
The pump dealer sells a pump once to a customer. Then the dealer will sell spare parts to the customer for the next 20-years for the same pump. Without adequate instrumentation on the new pump, the dealer will sell even more spare parts to the same customer.
I fly frequently with my work. The current-generation passenger jets practically fly themselves. On a routine flight, the pilot actively controls and manipulates the airliner only at take-off and landing. Autopilot does the rest unless something (weather or mechanical fault) goes awry.
Pilotless military drones controlled by a sergeant on the ground in Kansas or a sailor on a nearby ship at sea, fly missions over suspected despot and terrorist targets on the other side of the earth. Passenger drones, unimaginable a few years ago, are on the horizon.
Land-based petroleum company control rooms in Texas and Louisiana can operate the off-shore platforms out in the Gulf of Mexico when a hurricane approaches. Before the storm, helicopters bring the workers to shore to control the rig remotely.
Modern cars practically drive and parallel park themselves. Automatic dishwashers and robot vacuum cleaners hum daily in most middle-class homes.
There are times I think I have the best assignment in technical journalism. I am fortunate to have a pump column in Flow Control, a magazine dedicated to instrumentation and process control.
There are increasingly automated processes with every new day. There really is no reason an oil refinery or dairy can’t take the raw product (crude oil or cow’s milk) at the front end of the process plant, and turnout the packaged, finished product at the back end of the process with minimal or zero human input.
Instrumentation and control is the key to process management. Process engineers want to know the liquid velocity, flow, or pressure in a pipe. A pump generates that velocity, flow, and pressure in a pipe. Pumps make the liquid level rise and fall in a tank. Sometimes the pump even contributes to the process temperature.
I was talking with a senior refinery process engineer recently. I asked him about his rotating equipment. He said he has 6,000 pumps, 550 gearboxes, 420 compressors, and 200 fans. Pumps are 84 percent of all the rotating equipment in his refinery.
Process pumps need instrumentation. When the velocity, flow, and pressure are not what they should be, the alteration stresses the pump. Instrumentation can report the alteration. This is the reason I’ve said before that the instrumentation technician is a better friend to the Pump Reliability Engineer than the vibration analyzer or the CMMS (computerized maintenance management system) program.
The industrial pump is a relatively simple device. Most of what we call “pump problems” are really pipe/system problems. We call it a pump problem because the system problem manifests itself at the pump, just as a problem in an electrical circuit manifests itself at the fuse or breaker.
There are many reasons other industries are completely automated. There are many reasons automation eludes the chemical process industry. There are many reasons pumps don’t have adequate gauges. These are just two reasons.
I told you not to get me started!
Larry Bachus, founder of pump services firm Bachus Company Inc., is a regular contributor to Flow Control magazine. He is a pump consultant, lecturer, and inventor based in Nashville, Tenn. Mr. Bachus is a retired member of ASME and lectures in both English and Spanish. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.