Emerson’s James Beall joins our continuing podcast series on 5 Questions for an Emerson Expert. The goal of these podcasts is to share some tidbits on how they got their start in a science, technology, engineering & math (STEM)-based career and more about their background, interests and advice for new folks joining our world of automation.
James provides Control Performance Consulting and hands-on implementation for control improvement projects in the chemical, refining, upstream oil & gas and the pharmaceutical industries. Some of his key areas of expertise include instrumentation and control valve performance, advanced regulatory control and advanced multivariable control.
Jim: Hi, I’m Jim Cahill and welcome to our “5 Questions for an Emerson Expert” podcast series. Today I’m joined by James Beall. James is a principal process control consultant with more than 35 years of experience in the industry and in process automation. Welcome, James.
James: Hi Jim, how you doing? Good to be here.
Jim: I’m doing just great today. So, I like to start out and ask everyone what made you decide to pursue a STEM based career? You know, science, technology, engineering and math?
James: Well, probably the biggest influence was the fact that my dad was a Mechanical Engineer, and of course growing up I did all things mechanical with him. He taught me from a very early age how to work on engines, cars, everything! , I was rebuilding lawnmower motors and go kart motors when I was less than 10 years old. I got involved with the mechanical engineering side of things, but in general just the engineering way of thinking. I also got very good tutoring in math! I was very strong in math with the help from my dad and enjoyed that. That’s probably the biggest influence, and then maybe the other thing is my grandfather was a medical doctor. It seemed like to me being a doctor was too much involvement with people, and back then I didn’t want to have that much involvement with people. But now I love it and I probably spend more time with people than my doctor siblings! So that’s been interesting to see that evolve.
Jim: Well that’s fascinating. So what made you specifically get from that electrical engineering degree into process automation?
James: I enrolled in chemical engineering but switched to electrical engineering and finished up in that degree. When I was interviewing for my first job, I saw a company in Longview, Texas called Eastman Kodak, the chemicals division, that was close to where I grew up. I thought that’d be kind of neat to go back there and there were two openings for electrical engineers: one in electrical power and one in process instrumentation, which I had never heard of. So I interviewed in both areas and when I went back at the end of the day to the engineering superintendent, he asked me which area I was interested in and I said, “Well instrumentation engineering looks really interesting,” and he leaned over at me, and I can still remember him saying, “Are you sure?” I wondered what I was getting into, but I’ve absolutely loved it.
I did take a lot of chemical engineering actually along with my EE degree, and I had a good chemical engineer mentor in the instrument engineering group that really brought out the application of chemical engineering in that field. And of course, as soon as I got into instrumentation I started getting interested in control and then got involved with DCS’s and put in the first Provox system in the mid-80s and got interested in control. And went to all the advanced Emerson…well back the Fisher Rosemount Systems’ Advanced Control Seminars, and spent as much time as possible around people like Terry Blevins and Greg McMillian and continued to learn.
Jim: Well that sounds like, yeah, some of those folks you speak of, Terry Blevins and Greg McMillan, are hall of fame people and I’m sure you’re well on your path to that tier. Tell us about a recent challenge that you’ve helped one of our customers overcome.
James: Sure. One that comes to mind is really almost a year ago, we visited two small refineries in Southern Arkansas. One was a small facility where the people were inexperienced with control but were willing to share some of the challenges they had. I continued to talk to those people for literally nine months before I got the opportunity to have a small two day, on-site project to very specifically look at a small unit that they were having trouble with.
And as soon as we got there I could see that the biggest problem, or the biggest challenge, was the fact that they could not properly tune their level controllers. And while that seems simple, and almost not worth worrying about, it’s a huge impact usually in a bad way on your process, and there’s very little good information out there on properly tuning level controllers which are typically integrating processes, and most information on tuning those loops is not very good. Of course we have we have a phenomenally good way to tune integrating loops to achieve process performance. In a matter of two days we tuned four or five of their key level loops, a couple other temperature controllers, and left the site. As we worked, I taught the customer, what we do and how to do it. I got an email back from him a couple of weeks later that said that the work we did in 2 days was worth about $150,000 a year benefit, and potentially more, as they were able to push their process to a higher production rate.
So I’d been telling them that these techniques really will help their process. It was very rewarding to see in the short amount of time such a good benefit. It was very exciting.
Jim: Yeah, that’s amazing. In your line of work applying a little bit of that knowledge to it and can yield, you know, benefits in the hundreds of thousands or potentially millions depending on the challenge you’re trying to solve. That’s excellent. So with all the fun that you have there in the plant helping them improve their process so much, when you get outside of all of that, what do you like to do in your spare time?
James: Well I spend a lot of time teaching my grandkids how to hunt and fish, and work on go karts, and work on lawn mowers, and help them with their math as I did my children. And so that’s been a fun part of the last several years and I really enjoy that. That’s where I spend a lot of my time. We have a family cattle ranch that we take care of and forget about all the technical stuff and get out there and get sweaty and take a little break. And that makes me ready on Monday morning to get back into the air-conditioned room and think about technical things.
Jim: Well it sounds like you’re helping the next generation find that same love of science, technology, engineering, and math and have some fun, too. That sounds great. And I guess for my final question here, you know, we have a lot of new people coming in and joining the ranks in working in process manufacturing and process automation. What advice would you have for some of the folks coming in and joining us?
James: Well you know, try to find out about this area called process control. Because literally, I had no understanding of it, particularly in the chemical and refining end on the process industries. I had courses on theoretical control which I didn’t understand exactly how to apply and didn’t have any exposure to chemical plants or refineries or anything of that nature. I would encourage people to find out more about this, to do some reading, to try to co-op or intern into these facilities and find out more about it. There are only a small number of people in this field, which means the opportunity is great!
I absolutely love it. I mean I’m as excited, you know, this morning after 36 years of doing this kind of work as I was 20 years ago! You know, to tackle the next problem and there’s always problems that at first, you don’t understand or surprises. I was talking to one of my colleagues, Mark Coughran that you mentioned earlier, and he was telling me last week, you know, “It’s always fun to get a surprise when you have an idea of what you think it is, but then it’s something new and different and you’re able to figure it out and solve the problem for the customer and make things run better.” It’s super exciting to me, and I really absolutely enjoy it! I’m still ready to get up and get going and tackle new problems every day. So those are the things I would suggest.
Jim: Well if that doesn’t fire you up to come join us, then I don’t know what will. James, thank you so much for joining us today.
James: Yeah thank you, Jim. Always a joy working with you.
End of Transcript
Update: I temporarily replaced James’ picture with a formal portrait until we retake the picture here next week.
Update 2: Post now updated with new picture of James.