Emerson’s Chris Hamlin joins our continuing podcast series, 5 Questions for an Emerson Expert. Chris works with our Operational Certainty Consulting team in their role to help manufacturers and producers improve operational performance and drive toward top quartile performance.
We’ll have an in-depth podcast in the coming weeks with Chris describing this new area of virtually unlimited information flow and what’s keeping manufacturers and producers from taking advantage of what’s now possible.
Jim: Hi, this is Jim Cahill, with another edition of “Five Questions for an Emerson Expert.” Today we’re joined by Chris Hamlin. Chris is a director for our Operational Certainty consulting team and is based in the UK. He received his chemical engineering degree from the University of Cambridge, and an MBA at the Durham Business School. Welcome, Chris.
Chris: Hi, Jim, it’s good to be with you.
Jim: Great to be with you, too. So, given your chemical engineering degree, what made you choose to pursue a STEM-based academic degree?
Chris: You know, that’s a really interesting question. You know, when I was at school, what we call school in the UK, you know, high school for you guys in the U.S., I was kind of into a bit of everything. I loved, always loved maths, I always loved physics. So I was, kinda had a scientific kind of logical approach to life, but I was also really big into the arts. Theater has continued to be a big love of mine. You know, for a long time I kind of thought about studying English lit rather than physics at school.
But what actually, there was a defining moment, touring around universities, trying to work out what the heck I was gonna do with my life. My best friend from high school always knew he wanted to be a chemical engineer. He wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He always wanted to be a chemical engineer. So we went and visited a university, it was actually Birmingham University in the UK. He spent the entire day being dragged around this university by me. We went and visited the English department, the philosophy department, the law department, the economics department, all these kinda cool intellectual things I thought I might fancy doing, as I was trying to make my mind up.
The end of the day, we went to the chem eng department. It was the one thing that he wanted to do, so he’d been patient with me all day, and we sat in the chem eng department, I’ll remember to my dying day, watching an experiment. It was a demonstration of the transition from laminar to turbulent flow. Real simple thing. Clear plastic tube, water flowing through the tube, and a little dye injection point. And the realization that at a certain velocity of liquid through that pipe, this thing suddenly went crazy, and then you just slow that water down again, and it goes to perfectly smooth again. I remember just thinking, “That is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I really need to understand what that is. I really need to understand how that works, and why.” And that was the formative moment. From that point onwards, I knew that a chemical engineering degree was the thing I wanted to do.
Jim: Well that’s a fascinating story that a visual something there, and you just had to understand exactly how that works. So given that kind of background, what led you into our world of process automation?
Chris: Well, I was lucky enough, I mean, where I lived in the UK, there was kind of the center of the petrochemicals industry for, in Europe, actually. A lot of my friends and the parents of my friends worked for ICI, at the time one of the biggest chemical companies in the world. So ICI, I was lucky enough to get supported by ICI through college and university. And during that process, I kinda learnt a little bit about process automation, process control, specifically. And I guess, from what I’ve already said, I’ve always been kinda interested in not how are things the same, how are things stable, but what makes things change. I’m interested in the dynamics of things. And that’s actually what process control is all about, is all about the dynamics of systems. What happens as they’re changing, and how do you guide and influence that change?
So for me, it was a very, a much more intriguing area to work in. And it was a little bit specialist as well, and that kind of suited me and my mentality.
Jim: And one of the great things about an engineering degree, and we see it in our business, that it spans the gamut from you could be designing something, to marketing something, to selling something, all sorts of things in there. And with all of that, I guess, problem-solving is a common thread, so in your capacity, can you tell us about a recent challenge that you’ve been working on to solve?
Chris: I think, you know, everybody understands that Emerson as an organization, we’re trying to change the way we think about how we engage with our customer base and how we engage with the process industries in general. You know, for a long time, we have what I believe is a very well-earned reputation for excellent quality, high-precision field equipment and control systems and everything that goes with it. We’ve been a technology provider, a provider of product. But in this, you know, as the world kind of continues to develop and evolve, and as all technologies change, increasingly it’s not so much the technology that we provide to our customers that matters, it’s what do you do with it? How do you use that technology to create value? How do we provide solutions to problems? Or even better, how do we enable companies, individuals, professional engineers, to realize their aspirations, realize their business goals, or even their personal goals? That’s what we need to become. And that is, I guess I’m lucky, given my role in Operational Certainty consulting, that’s, we’re at the forefront of that change.
It’s really interesting, you know, what I learnt in my early days as a controls engineer about dynamics and how do you stimulate or provoke a system to respond and behave differently. And how do you make sure you don’t overshoot, you don’t overdo it? How do you make sure that you’ve applied the right amount of pressure, the right amount of stimulation at the right time, in the right way? All of those things are every bit as applicable to human systems, to companies, to organizations. I find it, you know, it’s interesting how all those skills I learned as a process control engineer back in the day, we’re now kind of deploying in terms of how do we move an organization and allow an organization to change how it thinks about itself and the impact that it has on the customer base in the businesses that it interacts with.
Jim: Yeah, I guess it’s like the flow that got you intrigued with chemical engineering in the same way to think about workflows and how people conduct their business and the opportunity to really improve that. Turning and getting away from our world of process automation, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Chris: As I said, you know, earlier on, I mean, I enjoy reading, I enjoy theater. I’ve got a youngish family, so, you know, that gets in the way of doing some of those things, I mean, those, everybody here listening to this with kids will appreciate the, kind of, their ability to absorb your time. You can see it as a drain, but I like to see it as an opportunity, again, a wonderful thing to see your children kinda grow and mature and develop their own personalities around you.
Yeah, I also, you know, try to get outside, I try to get outdoors. I do a lot of cycling. You know, one of the highlights of my Emerson career was that day we spent, actually, Jim, I think you were probably there, in California, just before Exchange. One of my colleagues dragged me out on a road bike, cycling down the Pacific Coast Highway. Again, another one of these transformative moments in my life, you know, I went home, spent a stupid amount of money on a road bike. I’ve since lost 30 pounds, will take whatever opportunity I can to get out on the open road, using my own, kind of, leg power, right? I just love that. You know, it’s a great sense of freedom.
Jim: That’s a great story how there was the tie with work and being out there and it led to that passion for getting on the bike and getting out there. So my last and final question. What advice would you have for someone new coming into our world of process automation?
Chris: Well the very first piece of advice I would give you is do it. Right? It’s a great field. It’s a great area to be in. An awful lot of engineering is around things that are stationary, that are still, right? It’s about equilibrium and maintaining equilibrium. Even chemical engineering is around stuff that doesn’t change. Getting it right, but stuff that doesn’t change. Process automation’s different. Process automation is kind of, is about things that are moving, things that are changing, things that are dynamic.
It’s about making the best of the current situation. It’s about how do you break down a problem and respond to it in real time, not with kind of, you know, hours and weeks of introspection, but yeah, right here, right now. And I think, you know, process automation is an awesome field to get into to learn rigor and formality in terms of how all systems work. And it stands you in amazingly good stead for everything you will subsequently do in life, you know? Whether that’s going into management, going into commercial operations.
I actually use PID control around how I think about disciplining children, you know? My poor old son, you know, proportional action is if he’s a little bit naughty, he gets a little bit told off. If he’s very naughty, he gets very told off, right? Integral action is, “Would you please hang your towel up in the bathroom? I’ve asked you three times. Would you please hang your towel up in the bathroom? This is the 10th time I’ve asked you! Hang your towel up in the bathroom!” Integral action, that progressive increase. And derivative action is, “Don’t walk in front of the car!”
It gives you models that we can use to help us understand the situations we’re in and to actually interact with our environment in a way that, to be honest, you know, for people with, I guess I maybe have a slightly strange mentality in terms of the way I see the world, but it’s just a great foundation for so many things. It’s a, you know, it’s been a great career so far.
Jim: Well I think you’ve just given me the best analogy for someone that knows nothing about PID control but has kids, to understand how PID control works, so that’s excellent. Well thank you so much for joining us today, Chris.
Chris: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Jim.
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