Weird Automation

Just when you think you've seen it all

 

Sometimes what I end up writing about in this column comes from a totally unexpected direction. A lot of the time, it comes from a curious turn in a conversation.

Our talented and industry-savvy Senior Technical Editor Dan Hebert recently was waxing philosophically about the old days. He's been in the controls business long enough to have pretty much heard and seen it all. Before we talked him into to coming to write for us, he worked for an engineering and design company in California, dealing with projects ranging from process industry automation to machine control integration.

The conversation turned to those projects that fit into the "just when you think you've seen it all..." category.

Dan had a pretty good one. "When I was a control systems engineer, it was a standing joke that everyone from clients to other employees to vendors would shoot the control systems engineer, i.e., the messenger, first and ask questions later," recalled Dan. "Because the control system is designed to detect problems and often shut the system down, it seems like the control system engineer is always blamed when anything goes wrong."

Every engineer has his own story about how wide the definition of "seen it all" can range. "A personal favorite is when a Hershey plant frantically called us one afternoon and said the control system had just shut down the entire plant," remembered Dan. "They demanded that we get a control system engineer on a plane right away because the shutdown had to be the fault of the control system."

This job site was 3,000 miles away, so Dan talked the caller through some elementary diagnostics. "We eventually asked him to look at the HMI, and that's when he saw that an E-stop button had been pushed," said Dan. So he asked the fellow to tell him which E-stop it was. There was a short silence, followed by an outburst of unprintable words. The next thing Dan heard resonating through the phone was, "Mike, get your fat butt off the E-stop button."

Dan says he never heard from them again.

So, of course, I started to think about what I'd run into during those years before I got into the editor biz. I realized I had many to choose from.

There was the mouse in a woodworking machining cell that pulled wire connectors off control signal terminals. It didn't chew them--it just crawled in and out of open knock-outs, occasionally and randomly pulling wires off.

And there was the monitoring system for a small pilot plant reactor that ran overnights, which--for weeks--magically turned itself off and on a time or two at night and back on every morning. That is, until the company's new cleaning service forgot to turn off the plant office lights one night. The system, unbeknownst to anyone, shared a 120 V power circuit with the office lights. The first thing the early shift foreman did before entering the plant was to, yes, indeed, turn on the office lights. Ahh, those as-built drawings.

It was Dan's idea that I write a column about this subject, because a lot of you probably have even better stories to tell. Some of them probably just happened last week. So, why not share a few with all of us? You can make them as anonymous as you need to. I'll bet we can print a few of them every month, probably for a very long time.

Who wants to go first?

E-mail your stories to Joe at jfeeley@putman.net.

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