Valve World Americas had the opportunity to sit down with Whitlock to talk about his vast industry knowledge, his goals as a teacher, and what he hopes for the future of the industry.
By Brittani Schroeder, Sarah Bradley and Angelica Pajkovic
Working in the instrumentation industry for 42 years has given Whitlock a wealth of knowledge and experience. He has spent time on projects in both upstream and downstream sectors; in pipeline systems and in chemical plants; and has worked with everything from control valves and temperature devices, to distributed control systems (DCS) and programmable logic controllers (PLC). While working in instrumentation and control systems has been Whitlock’s primary focus, he has always had a passion for power distribution. “I like dealing with high-voltage applications, while also working on the instrumentation side of it,” he relayed. “I have pretty much worked with everything electrical-related. I specialize in all aspects of instrumentation and I know a lot about valves because I have done design engineering and management for all different types.”
Some of his principal projects include:
- Crude oil rail unloading;
- Safety instrumented systems (SIS);
- Refinery expansions installation of vessel, heaters, boilers, pumps and valves;
- Firewater protection systems;
- Barge loading dock facility installations;
- Power distribution system upgrades;
- Flare gas recovery systems;
- Pressure Relief Valve (PSV) 3% compliance and remediation;
- Steam system improvements;
- Environmental compliance projects;
- Solar power systems;
- Microwave communication systems;
- Uninterruptible power supply or source (UPS) systems;
- Diesel and natural power generation packages;
- Navigational lighting systems;
- Pipeline remote control automation and monitoring;
- Compressor control systems;
- Boiler management systems (BMS).
The multi-faceted nature of his role has simultaneously provided him with the opportunity to engage with a wide range of industry professionals. “One of the major issues I faced in the early days of my career was the inability to find good technicians coming out of the local colleges. So, I decided to train my own!” explained Whitlock. “I was a volunteer teacher for about 25 years. I basically took kids off the street and made instrumentation technicians out of them.”
This is what first brought Whitlock into professional teaching. As he took on more and more young technicians, he realized that he truly enjoyed the opportunity to share his experience with those just entering the industry. “I retired from the instrumentation industry in 2019, and my intention was to take a break from work, go fishing, and relax. Suddenly, I was offered a teaching position at San Jacinto College, and they wanted me to start immediately. So, I did.”
Defining Instrumentation Engineering
The role of an instrumentation engineer varies greatly depending on which processes and equipment the engineer is engaged with. “My task as an instrumentation engineer was to arrive after the process equipment had been installed – so the valves, hoses, pumps and motors, and monitor and control the systems, machinery and processes and install the instrumentation and controllers (distributed control system (DSCs), programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and standalone controllers) needed to get the process to worked as designed. If you simply install that equipment without anything else, they will not work,” said Whitlock.
Similar to the process of installing an engine into a car: if you do not connect the install instrumentation and a computer, the car will not go anywhere. The engine needs to be connected to the sensors, switches, the output control, and monitoring devices to get a fully functional piece of equipment.
All instrumentation needs to be tied into a computer system, such as a DCS, a PLC, or any computer based monitoring and control systems. All process requirements, such as temperature and pressure, are plugged into the computer so that the system will send a signal and control those units. “We manage, install, and design,” said Whitlock. “You can manually operate some of the systems, but even manual devices need some type of instrumentation support. A control valve will need the actuator, an air supply, and it needs to be calibrated properly. Ultimately, instrumentation engineers are necessary people. Without instrumentation, you will not be able to operate properly.”
Vessels, valves, pipe, pumps, compressors and hoses are crucial to a process’ ability to function and produce saleable products. Maintaining the instrumentation that monitor and control the critical process equipment is essential to the role of an instrumentation engineer. “The biggest cause of failures I have seen with valves is actually inadequate documentation. Gathering the proper data, analyzing it, and documenting really helps,” said Whitlock. “If you track how many miles you put on your car after each time you fill your gas tank from empty, and you see the number miles per tank getting lower and lower between each trip to the gas station, you know that your car is not performing at its best. By tracking and analyzing that data, you can tell your car is not performing well long before a mechanic will tell you the same thing. The same goes for valves,” he continued. “We stress to students that they need to learn how to collect the right data, learn how to analyze it, and in the end, it will prevent a lot of avoidable equipment stress.” This concept is commonly known as predictive maintenance.
The Joys of the Job
Whitlock considers programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to be the most exciting and the most challenging aspects of the instrumentation role. “The PLC is nothing more than a black box that you can start programming for your equipment. You program it with certain language, and it will take inputs and produce outputs. One of the most exciting things is being able to take the ideas from someone’s head and program it into the PLC,” he explained.
Being an instrumentation engineer can be extremely challenging at times. “There is no time for trial and error, and you have to do the job correctly with a lot of other dynamic factors in front of you. You have to be focused on maintaining project budget costs, you must work with the customer, and the other field support personnel, and you have to train a lot of people to use the instrumentation technologies properly.”
Teaching the Next Engineers
Whitlock now teachers at San Jacinto College for the Instrumentation Program. “I had not planned on taking another position so quickly, but when you are called, you go where you are needed,” he said.
The Instrumentation Program has been designed for students coming straight from high school, as well as industry professionals who want to advance their skills. “Students need to have a basic level of understanding in math and science, specifically algebra and physics. We give them all the tools of the trade to maintain and calibrate equipment, but the first step is to understand each device. We teach them about temperature, pressure, and flow devices, among others,” Whitlock relayed. “The second step is to interconnect these devices in the system and learn how to maintain them. We use special tools and computers, and teach the students how they would put them onto equipment and how they would calibrate them.”
Students learn what kind of signals will be put out of the devices, as well as maintenance and installation procedures. The next step for the students is learning how to troubleshoot problems. “Any technician in the field needs to know how to troubleshoot and keep things running. We take the students through a regimented, very strenuous, process of troubleshooting various devices that are found in the process industry. If they mess up, everything is okay—it is better to mess up in the class than out in the field. We give them scenarios, the teachers go to mess up the equipment, and we tell the students to figure it out and fix it.”
To Whitlock, hands-on learning and training is an absolute must. He enjoys being able to get out of his chair and move his class to a lab to demonstrate what he is teaching. “There are so many engineers that have come into the industry not having touched the equipment during their years in school. I do not think that is a logical way to learn. You need to get your hands dirty when you still have your teachers as a resource, and then you can go out into the field and be ready for work.”
“We want to make the students valuable assets for when they graduate,” admitted Whitlock. “Typically, when engineers come out of school, there is up to two years of training on the job before they are comfortable in their roles. We want to prepare them properly, to cut down that extra training time.” A lot of the teachers who work alongside Whitlock are engineers who are also retired or still working in the industry. “Our combined experiences can get the students to job-ready status by the time they are done here.”
Looking to the Future
When Whitlock first entered the industry, he was thrown into the field without a lot of experience. “I gained the experience in the field, but I would recommend something a little different for new engineers,” he said. “Gaining field experience while learning from lectures, textbooks, and the lab experiences in school, is a more all-encompassing way to become proficient at your job. Installing and maintaining instrumentation equipment should become second nature and a natural response. Even if an engineer does not perform a specific task for years in the field, they should have it in the back of their minds should a problem arise. I tell my students to practice what they learn every two weeks until it becomes part of who they are.”
Whitlock knows that the instrumentation professions will be around forever. “Schools mainly focus on the process industries, such as oil and gas, and chemical, but instrumentation is instrumentation. The same practices we use in the process industries can be found on lab equipment in a hospital, auto computer diagnostic, traffic light control systems, HVAC system control, any system with end devices feeding a processor/computer generating outputs – it is all the same technology,” he said. “As the oil and gas industry starts to diversify into renewable fuels, more solar and wind power, we have been taking the necessary steps to ensure that the instrumentation will be ready. It is just a matter of making the decision to change and being prepared for it.”