Everything I Learned About Being a Process & Instrumentation Tech
Here’s a Story…
On everything I learned about being a process & instrumentation tech, from a guy named Ben one of the most skilled professionals I’ve ever worked with, and how he taught me a career lesson everyone could learn from.
I got to spend some time working with him because in the end I learned a great life lesson, and I learned about his career as well.
Well, the bad thing is that my career would change a few years after I met him and would I lose touch with him, but I’ve carried his life lesson with me every day. Since that time, I’ve sweat and bled with some of the industry’s best and discovered the ins and outs of the job (I didn’t become a process & instrumentation tech, but more on that later).
For anyone interested in a challenging and rewarding career it’s hard to beat one that’s filled with people who love their career and are real damn good at their job.
Now just to be clear, a couple of the guys I worked with said they didn’t have pervious job experience in the career before getting a job in it, but they did have some solid previous knowledge that helped them land their opportunity.
Unfortunately, process & instrumentation isn’t something you can usually just pick up at the local college. And it’s challenging enough finding good candidates to train, let alone finding qualified professionals. As a matter of fact, I just did a quick internet search for instrumentation technician jobs and found 3000 want ads on Linkedin.
I also noticed the pay some of the companies were advertising, several of them said they paid $35.00 – $45.00 an hour! Now all that sounds good I’m sure, but if you don’t know anything about the job or you don’t know how to get the job it doesn’t mean anything.
So, Where Do I Start?
If you want to know how to land a job doing this kind of work, you should already have an idea about what a tech does. That’s what this post is all about, giving you an inside view of the career. Looking online reveals a small snapshot of the type of work you’ll do. However, what you won’t know because you haven’t done the job is the details, you won’t know what a ‘day in the life of a tech’ is like.
Most techs I have worked with start their day by drinking coffee and checking their email, that’s how I start my day as well by the way. They start their daily inspection of the process by looking at the alarms list, and conditional messages triggered from the process.
For some companies, they may have an alarms list that displays on a SCADA system (supervisory control and data acquisition) which is a network that lets you access every display screen located around the facility. The company I was working at was using the Wonderware software on a PC computer which were located at the process equipment but they were able to remotely access the screens using the SCADA network.
With this network and software, they could have remote access through the SCADA to the equipments computer screens with the LIVE process parameters from a laptop anywhere in the world.
They would cycle through the Wonderware screens to verify the process feedbacks were displaying properly and to verify that the process was operating smoothly.
During the inspection of the process they made notes and began making calls, using the radio or phone to follow up on concerns regarding the alarms and messages. They then usually followed that up by viewing the work orders generated by the CMM system (computerized maintenance management system) followed by grabbing some tools, their laptop and heading out the door.
Their job requires them to maintain the process instrumentation in good working condition. That consists of assisting in the design, installation and maintenance of measurement and controls systems of a production process like what would be used to make; glue, beer, paint, oil refining, etc.
They needed to ensure that the process pressures, the measurements, temperatures and even the highly complex chemical properties used in the process were in the proper parameters needed for production. In addition, they were responsible for keeping the controls used to operate the process like the buttons, dials, gauges, and devices needed functioning properly. It’s not a good thing, as we all know to have a broken button and be unable to turn something off.
While most of the hardware had already been installed and working fine, possibly for years they often had to focus their attention on devices that were failing, were broke, or had recently been changed that weren’t functioning properly, like a failing proxy sensor for example, or they would have to complete a work order to change a j-type thermocouple wire because it got damaged and wasn’t reliably working.
They needed to be competent electricians, be knowledgeable about electronics (not a master but a competent troubleshooter) know about pneumatics and be very competent with computers and software to include being pretty good at troubleshooting all the way back to the PLC, programmable logic controller.
They needed to kind of be a jack of all trades, just to keep the equipment hardware operating properly. I recall seeing them work for hours with software on the production floor troubleshooting. I also recall them spending days wiring and rewiring new sensors and gauges during a new install.
They had to be able to get a little dirty and then quickly be able to clean up and be presentable to attend staff and project meetings or meet with vendors to chat about a new project, they sometimes did some travelling for training or to review new equipment, they were often also responsible for ordering their own parts and writing up a ‘scope of work’ for new projects that often would cost tens of thousands of dollars, or even a million dollars or more (no kidding).
Those guys needed to be technically sharp and functionally flexible at the same time. I worked with them many times troubleshooting issues and by us helping each other out we got the job done.
How Do I Get a Technicians Job?
So, the time came to meet Ben, working with him and his crew I discovered that answering this question can be simple and a little hard at the same time, but one thing for sure is that anyone who wants to land a job doing this work can do it.
But, and yes there is a but, you have to want the job thus the hard part, because like in most technical professions there is some training required and some real work you have to do. To be able to perform the job and be a real value to any company who would hire you.
What I found out working with them, is that you don’t have to be a college graduate and even if you are you will need additional training to make you job ready, on day one.
So, when I met Ben I was working as a project engineer (I eventually moved into PLC programming) for a meat processing company in South Chicago. I didn’t really know anything about the process & instrumentation career until then, I discovered it working with him and his team helping them do some electrical troubleshooting.
I learned that, electricity is a foundational skill for their work and by extension his team, I often seen Ben spend time teaching his team about the proper use of a digital multimeter and having them compute OHMS law calculations.
When I was asked to lend my skills and overall experience, we often started by pulling out pages of electrical prints, and P&ID, which stands for Piping & Instrumentation Drawings. There was always a continuous crunch to figure out the prints, some of which were difficult to read due to missing info or inaccurate updates.
I recall a few times going on to the floor to help the team troubleshoot a PCB board on a temperature monitoring system, I’m not the best with electronics but Ben was sharp. He was even teaching his group to repair the electronics when they were able. Apparently not all process & instrumentation techs repaired electronics but it helped them save time and money.
While I was paid to focus on capital expense projects, and new equipment purchases and installs I found myself working with Ben and his team on occasion installing process controls like; pressure, force, weight & motion measurement. As well as flow, level and temperature measurements devices.
One of the more interesting tasks was when they calibrated the process, I learned about a variety of different PLC’s (programmable logic controllers) and how control loops operate, I learned how data is transmitted and more about PLC programming troubleshooting as well as gained some strong computer skills.
I found out that you can’t be afraid of computers, like a screwdriver, a PC is a tool in every instrumentation technicians tool box, as many process control devices use programmable devices.
Now, one day Ben and I were working on a Saturday refurbishing a machine, we were having a casual chat about work, which merged into family and that’s when he shared that a member in his family was battling cancer and another was trying to save their marriage.
It was then that I heard something life changing, he said “we are all fighting something, everyone has something their battling. So, we should always leave room for understanding even for those who seem least deserving”.
Years later, more recently to be exact, when I was planning the start up the Logix Magazine, I was reminded of those valuable words. My readers would come to the website looking for information to overcome a life challenge or a battle to change their life.
Were all fighting something, were working hard to move towards or away from something, and I wanted Logix Magazine to be a resource to help them reach for a better life. And by telling you about my time working with Ben and his team, I could give you a snapshot of the work they did, the skill they had and the daily challenges they face to keep the process going. And possibly help you make an informed decision to move into or take a pass on this career.
I hope this story helps.
“Improvement usually means doing something that we have never done before.” – Shigeo Shingo.
So, Where Are You In Your Career?
This career is a very accepting field, with very little hurdles to entry, but the few hurdles that there are is the desire to work hard, constantly learn and make a lifelong commitment to getting the job done.
Are you looking for a new career?
If you are, then you won’t go wrong pursuing this career. But, its helpful to bring some basic electrical and or mechanical skills to the table. Maybe you did some basic website programming while in high school or college or while building your own computer you learned something about electronics. All these experiences would be good to bring into the job, and help you make a smooth transition into the career.
Are you midlife and looking for a career change?
People with varied and extensive life experience can be highly valuable candidates. Companies not only want skilled tech’s, but they also want mature, and responsible people who can often work unsupervised managing equipment worth millions of dollars.
Once management is comfortable with your ability to do the job, their second need is trust. Can they trust that you will manage yourself, their equipment and their money like they would?
I listed some resources below to help you discover more about the process & instrumentation career and to help you make a smooth transition into this awesome career, if you feel it’s a good fit. Good Luck.