Training of process control engineers at the university. Part 3 – Future

This is the third part (part 1, part 2) of describing the development of the learning process for process control engineers. The purpose of all three articles is an attempt to comprehend the training of process control engineers at the university (what it was and what it is now), and discuss with the Habr community what it should be like in the future. How can it be updated.

Why change something?

In my opinion, the field of process control systems turned out to be on the outskirts of all modern trends in technical development.

Firstly, there is little IT development in it. And this means that many things from IT hardly find their place even in the software part of the process control system. For the middle and lower levels of automation, these are, as a rule, the most basic concepts and programming languages: IEC (ST, IL, LAD), C, C ++, sometimes libraries based on them (Qt). In the development of SCADA systems, integration with IT technologies is much higher, but the high competition of such systems with each other plays a role here. In a winning position in the market are those systems that can offer the user some kind of exclusive (for example, a native protocol for exchanging with their own PLC). And for such an exclusive, it is required that the developers of the SCADA system be integrated with the equipment manufacturer (a vivid example is the Siemens automation ecosystem). Such integrated enterprises exist in Russia, but they are few. If there is no exclusive, then the system has to compete with a legion of similar systems that support, by and large, the same set of connected protocols (OPC, MODBUS, IEC standards) and contain the same functionality typical of all SCADA systems. (tag polling module, screen module, alarm module).

The field of process control systems is also not close to the production of electronics. Rather, it is a consumer of electronics and is therefore particularly vulnerable to interruptions in the supply of electronic components. In the current situation, it becomes critical not that TVs and smartphones are not produced in Russia, but that the production lines currently operating at factories are made on foreign equipment and software. The non-production of a new TV set is not as critical as the non-production of bread at a bakery where a foreign production line has failed. The failure will not be instantaneous, and it is partially possible to carry out repairs with improvised means and available equipment. But even if somewhere production continues to function for a long time, over time, the volume of output and the range of products will inevitably decline.

And thirdly, theoretical developments in the field of process control systems are now very limitedly applicable. Some of the tasks that previously required deep theoretical study are now being solved by software thanks to technical progress: digital signal processing, high speed, microprocessor technology, and increased data exchange speed between participants. For most tasks encountered in mass production, it is no longer necessary to predict the behavior of the system so deeply in order to control it. The application of the theoretical basis requires the existence of very complex tasks from the point of view of management. As a rule, these are research and scientific tasks at the limit of the possibilities of technology. Currently, such tasks are concentrated in several areas: the military commissar, space, and technical physics. But this is not a mass segment of the economy, and due to the current state of affairs, these areas, except for the military, do not show development prospects.

Future applicants also see this state of affairs in the process control system, and choose another, more promising, specialty. Therefore, the shortage of new specialists in process control systems is high. Over time, this deficit will inevitably be recognized, and overcome (I hope). The lack of specialists in this field will push the level of salaries, increasing their competitiveness. But this cannot be a quick process: in the paragraph about students, we already spoke of the inevitable long period of study that cannot be shortened. Therefore, even if you want to switch from IT to process control systems (no matter how ridiculous it may sound now), it will be impossible to do it instantly without knowledge of basic engineering disciplines. In order to study a new area in IT, you only need a head, a textbook and a computer, and to study the field of process control systems, you also need knowledge of the operation of hardware that cannot be studied without seeing and working with them live. If this is not done at the university, then it will have to be done at the enterprise, but this stage cannot be bypassed.


Based on the foregoing, the most pressing question is: what should be changed in the training of process control engineers so that this training is relevant in the short and long term? So that graduates can confidently find a decent job, do not get disgusted by it and do not try to move to another field, wasting years of study in vain? I understand that the answers to these questions lie not only in the field of teaching, but here I propose to consider only what we can influence.

I invite those who are interested in this topic to express their opinion in the comments, but here are my own thoughts on the future of teaching PCS:

Until now, when teaching students, we focus on solving applied problems (the “second branch” of automation from the previous parts). This is the design of some device, a project for the automation of some kind of production, the writing of some kind of algorithm in an existing device. This is correct when there is a basis on which this problem can be solved: elemental, industrial, software, theoretical. Now the base has changed, but it is still there, although it is different and more primitive. Even on this base, you can continue to solve problems up to the most modern ones. And there is a temptation to follow this path: to teach the cutting edge of “applied” technologies. Specifically, by this I mean following modern trends and intensifying the introduction of IT in the industry. The most fashionable topics now, even judging by Habr: neural networks, machine vision, machine learning, data analytics. It may be worth teaching this in relation to the process control system, and, therefore, modernize the training with IT-related topics. As projects, you can come up with all kinds of machine vision systems in production, parts recognition on an assembly line, adaptive control using neural networks and data analytics. And if we take purely automated control systems, such as controlling drones, anthropomorphic robots, then here too, a lot of teaching can be realized. Despite the fact that progress is moving in this direction all over the world (it is enough, for example, to look at the website of the ETH Zurich, where there is an automatic control laboratory), my opinion is that going in this direction will be a mistake. Of course, there is an awareness that military developments will be on the rise now, and in this regard, the theoretical block of disciplines and related tasks will come in handy and may even be expanded. But long-term development cannot be based on military developments. Despite the possible future conversion and examples from the USA (DARPA, etc.), their use in the civilian field is limited. It is necessary to develop civilian technologies separately, and we are still bad at this.

If you think long-term, the right thing seems to be, albeit temporary, but the “earthiness” of education, which would make it possible not so much to teach the production of final products, but to teach the production of means of production. It is no secret that now the predominant industries in Russia are the production of lower redistribution. They are characterized by large volumes of product use and output (shipped tons, running meters). This does not require complex, fast and accurate control devices, and the level of process control systems available in the country copes with these tasks. But with an increase in the degree of processing and an increase in the diversity of the assortment, the quality and flexibility of the final product, and not the gross indicators, come to the fore. And for quality, we need specially designed and customized lines for each production, which include several components (machines, machines, units, etc.) that act in concert. It is necessary to use precision tools for positioning instruments, accurate dosages of consumables, etc.

Here I have no illusions: own development of means of production is now a weak point in Russia, and will be so in the future. This includes machine tool building, and the development of our own production lines, and the development of our own PLCs and peripherals for them. According to articlesthe volume of own funds of process control systems produced in Russia is only 3% (0.15% in monetary terms).

It is on the development of products in these areas, in my opinion, that the training of process control engineers should be oriented. Of course, it is necessary to teach general things in this area, because the line for the production of, for example, cosmetics, is different from the line for the production of bearings. But the principles of controlling drive mechanisms, reading information from sensors, transferring parts between nodes are quite general and can be formalized in the form of a training course.

Based on the foregoing, it looks tempting to supplement or transform training courses with disciplines in the following areas:

– Disciplines related to precision mechanics and its control. Particularly here are the tasks of precise positioning, without which the operation of any serious machine tools and production lines is impossible. This is where the developed theoretical apparatus of TAU can be useful, which makes it possible to take into account the mechanical properties of moving parts. Machine vision can also be studied as one of the methods for precise positioning.

– Disciplines related to the control of electric drives, especially the precision type. Also, stepper motors, as part of electric drives, provide the most accurate control. Therefore, it is necessary to teach them the device, application, features.

– Theoretical disciplines that allow you to build a control algorithm for a complex distributed system, such as conveyor production. To do this, it is necessary to clearly formulate the scheme of system transitions from one state to another. Here, the theory of finite automata can be useful, moreover, they are connected with real time (that is, they react not at discrete time steps, but at a moment unknown in advance, depending on the external situation).

– In the programming trajectory, it is advisable to add the study of building a real-time operating system (RTOS). But then, before studying the RTOS, you will need to study the construction of conventional operating systems.

All of the above points are not my specialty, so they should be considered as a kind of amateur opinion. But perhaps they will encourage someone who understands the topic to write a more detailed rationale for why they should (or should not) be taught to students.

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