Overcoming complexity without AI

April 3, 2024
Hey, sometimes a knowledgeable, thoughtful human will do the trick

Emily was trying to decipher the manual, a PDF file on a tiny optical disk that shipped with the device. The search for a PC that still had an optical drive was only the beginning of her concerns.

“NEMA 6, what was that?,” she asked herself, worried the new instrument wouldn’t survive long in the unceasing veil of mist around their cooling tower. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) creates ratings for enclosures, and is familiar to most specifying engineers in North America. However, NEMA 6 was uncommon and she needed at least NEMA 4 or 4X, aware that some numerically higher ratings, e.g. NEMA 12, offered less protection. On other continents, Ingress Protection (IP) ratings are the norm, and higher numbers always mean more protection. How logical!

Happily, Emily discovered NEMA 6 meant “submersible.” Indeed, this new magnetic flowmeter could even be buried in the ground or subjected to intermittent flooding, provided the installer followed the guidelines for sealing (caulking, effectively) the electrical conduit entries. It was as if her specifying engineer or vendor representative gave some thought as to where this new meter was expected to function. What a country!

When soliciting proposals for a given application from multiple suppliers, a written and vendor-agnostic specification has been de rigueur, respecting a modicum of fairness in awarding a purchase order (PO). End users can drift away from this discipline, and many times a proposal is solicited and a PO is cut without such diligence—we simply don’t have the time or the people. A site may not even have an I&C specialist, such as a maintenance person who looks after more than just instruments, or a process specialist, who is unhappily saddled with the additional responsibility. We’ve become “lean” to the point where even those who want to hire an engineer can’t find one. Could this become the swamp in which dreams of Ether-bus and Internets of Things become mired?

Relieved her device was likely to survive the moist and sometimes icy environment, Emily looked for a place to land the wires. There were a multitude of PDFs on the tiny optical disk. There must have been certifications and approvals for every country or region on the planet, which gave her a glimpse of the enormous effort and expense device manufacturers face when marketing their wares worldwide. There were different manuals for the meter body and the transmitter, and yet another for bussed or digital interconnections to a capable host.

Configuration instructions presented a (not uncommon) ponderous menu-map, which must be navigated to get the transmitter set up. The six pictogram keys of mysterious meaning—they serve all users regardless of language or culture—permitted navigation through a flowchart that consumed two pages of the manual. That was for “basic” settings. Emily counted about 23 key presses to set flow direction, line frequency, full scale, units and cutoff. Such is life in the digital age.

There are YouTube videos that feature basic instruction, but Emily was fortunate that her representative composed a focused and truncated version of the manual that addressed everything needed to complete the installation in a few pages. In the current zeitgeist, where we end up relying on more distant and less accountable/responsible technical support, one wonders what the future portends.

One remedy is a growing number of Bluetooth-connected interfaces for field devices. Provided a given region supports and allows it, apps using Bluetooth to monitor and configure field devices are adaptable across many languages. Getting one’s app certified by Android and Apple isn’t a given either, and obtaining a Bluetooth-capable smartphone or tablet for use in hazardous areas is a must for many processes. Having used both methods for a little, 1/16 DIN temperature controller, I’d opt for Bluetooth wherever it’s an option.

At day’s end, Emily’s good fortune of a capable and available representative to help navigate through the tortuous documentation and procedures saved the day. Rarely can any end user become an expert at everything—they’re only as good as their Internet search. Maybe someday “Gemini” will read all the manuals for us, but until then, having the email or phone number of a knowledgeable (human) is indispensable.

About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

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