Experience is by industry achieved

John Drever | 10 Apr 2015 | Comments

In the Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare’s Antonio says: “Experience is by industry achieved, And perfected by the swift course of time.” In engineering we can learn and gain knowledge, but competence is being able to apply that knowledge to real world problems.

The opportunities to practice engineering skills on equipment at the scale and complexity of a real system are few and far between. As an industrial plant manager you wouldn’t want to let raw under-graduates loose on your control system!

However, I recently had the opportunity to visit an amazing example of this in an academic environment at Imperial College, London. The department of Chemical Engineering there has designed and built a fully functioning industrial quality carbon capture system in the heart of the city. This occupies four storeys of the university and has its own impressive control room.

This facility enables students to gain hands-on experience and hone their skills with a live operational system. The system itself has 250 sensors of every kind imaginable, measuring flow, temperature, pressure etc. all connected to a dual–redundant process control system. Communications are just as varied with students being able to practice with traditional wired protocols and state-of-the-art wireless sensors. Some of these sensors are even powered from the heat generated in the system itself.

Process plant
As we toured the facility I saw many examples of high-end process engineering.

Professor Nina Thornhill and Dr Daryl Williams from the Chemical Engineering department provided me with a tour of the plant and their associated laboratory which is dedicated to process control and automation. As we toured the facility I saw many examples of high-end process engineering.

Aptly, they call this the ‘ChemEng Discovery Space’. Students at Imperial College get the opportunity to understand the design process for complex chemical plant and the operational process control systems. But it isn’t just a test bed for process control, it is also one of the world’s most advanced carbon-capture pilot systems. They are pushing forward the boundaries of this planetary issue.

Our last stop was in the control room where they showed me how the CCTV cameras around the plant were configured and controlled via the control system to be able to zoom-in on any of the sensors selected.

I was very pleased to see that academia can invest in the same technology that large corporate organisations can. Building up the capacity of experienced and capable industrial control and automation engineers is challenging due to the lack of complexity of systems for them to cut their teeth upon. As such I’m encouraged that many of the current crop of graduates coming through institutions like Imperial College will have developed industry level experience that will allow them to quickly adapt to working life outside academia.

Are you aware of other examples of similar facilities that allow students to get hands on engineering experience with real systems? If so, please let me know in the comments below.