Take a systems approach

In the United States, control engineers typically are not educated in control engineering departments. Instead, they obtain degrees in such disciplines as electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering. In 2003, a series of National Science Foundation-funded workshops assessed the chemical engineering curriculum.


In the United States, control engineers typically are not educated in control engineering departments. Instead, they obtain degrees in such disciplines as electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering.

In 2003, a series of National Science Foundation-funded workshops assessed the chemical engineering curriculum. Faculty from more than 53 universities (one-third of the U.S. departments) and five industry engineers reached strong consensus that there is a need for significant change in basic principles for chemical engineering undergraduate education. See web.mit.edu/che-curriculum for full proceedings of these workshops. Workshop participants defined the scope of what chemical engineers do and described the elements of an undergraduate chemical engineering education without relying on the current categories of the traditional curriculum, which has been fairly static for the past 40 years.

Three organizing principles emerged. First, chemical engineers seek to understand, manipulate, and control the molecular basis of matter, and the molecular-level processes—physical, chemical, and biological—that underlie observed phenomena in nature and technology. Molecular transformation is a unified treatment of phenomena at this level. Second, chemical engineers are effective because they combine macroscopic engineering tools with molecular understanding. Multiscale analysis deals with phenomena that occur at different scales (such as in a packed bed reactor, ranging from kinetic mechanism to heat duty), and an understanding of how phenomena at one scale affect another (for example, molecular structure can influence macroscopic flow properties).

It is significant that the third organizing principle is systems analysis and synthesis, which is the ability to design or manipulate systems to achieve desired behavior or performance of a product or process. Engineers are fundamentally problem solvers, seeking to achieve some objective of design or performance among technical, social, economic, regulatory, and environmental constraints. Therefore, the systems component of the curriculum should ensure that chemical engineering graduates can:

  • Create and understand mathematical descriptions of physical phenomena;

  • Scale variables and perform order-of-magnitude analysis;

  • Structure and solve complex problems that are open-ended, require estimates and assumptions, and involve integration of knowledge and information;

  • Manage large amounts of messy or noisy data, including missing data and information;

  • Resolve complex and sometimes contradictory issues of process design and deal with sensitivity of solutions to assumptions, uncertainty in data, what-if questions, and process optimization.

The systems component of the curriculum is the part that trains students in tools for synthesis, analysis, and design of chemical and biological processes. Systems education teaches them how to convert scientific facts and principles of chemical and biological systems into engineering decisions.

The knowledge base of a systems education consists of methods for dynamic and steady-state simulation at multiple length and time scales, statistical analysis of data, sensitivity analysis, optimization, parameter estimation and system identification, design and analysis of feedback, methods for online monitoring and diagnosis, methods for design of products and processes, and tools to plan, execute, and interpret experiments. New educational materials should enable instructors to integrate systems concepts into many courses in the curriculum at each stage of an undergraduate's education. As students learn new scientific concepts, the systems tools that enable specific scientific knowledge to be harnessed for engineering purposes can be presented in parallel.

Author Information

Thomas F. Edgar is a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.

No comments
The Engineers' Choice Awards highlight some of the best new control, instrumentation and automation products as chosen by...
The System Integrator Giants program lists the top 100 system integrators among companies listed in CFE Media's Global System Integrator Database.
Each year, a panel of Control Engineering and Plant Engineering editors and industry expert judges select the System Integrator of the Year Award winners in three categories.
This eGuide illustrates solutions, applications and benefits of machine vision systems.
Learn how to increase device reliability in harsh environments and decrease unplanned system downtime.
This eGuide contains a series of articles and videos that considers theoretical and practical; immediate needs and a look into the future.
Additive manufacturing benefits; HMI and sensor tips; System integrator advice; Innovations from the industry
Robotic safety, collaboration, standards; DCS migration tips; IT/OT convergence; 2017 Control Engineering Salary and Career Survey
Integrated mobility; Artificial intelligence; Predictive motion control; Sensors and control system inputs; Asset Management; Cybersecurity
Featured articles highlight technologies that enable the Industrial Internet of Things, IIoT-related products and strategies to get data more easily to the user.
This article collection contains several articles on how automation and controls are helping human-machine interface (HMI) hardware and software advance.
This digital report will explore several aspects of how IIoT will transform manufacturing in the coming years.

Find and connect with the most suitable service provider for your unique application. Start searching the Global System Integrator Database Now!

Infrastructure for natural gas expansion; Artificial lift methods; Disruptive technology and fugitive gas emissions
Mobility as the means to offshore innovation; Preventing another Deepwater Horizon; ROVs as subsea robots; SCADA and the radio spectrum
Future of oil and gas projects; Reservoir models; The importance of SCADA to oil and gas
Automation Engineer; Wood Group
System Integrator; Cross Integrated Systems Group
Jose S. Vasquez, Jr.
Fire & Life Safety Engineer; Technip USA Inc.
This course focuses on climate analysis, appropriateness of cooling system selection, and combining cooling systems.
This course will help identify and reveal electrical hazards and identify the solutions to implementing and maintaining a safe work environment.
This course explains how maintaining power and communication systems through emergency power-generation systems is critical.
click me