Online education benefits for process instrumentation, control

In-person training for process instrumentation and control (PIC) provides valuable training on-site for engineers, but online education can save time and money for everyone involved while giving engineers a base of knowledge they can build from.

By Nabil (Bill) Battikha, P.E. May 3, 2019

Process instrumentation and control (PIC) represents, on average, 15% of the cost of an average industrial project. It’s a high-tech discipline critical to the success and survival of a plant and yet is typically learned “on the job.” Many people working in the field lack the proper training needed to make appropriate decisions, which can lead to expensive errors.

As older and experienced PIC technicians and engineers retire, younger professionals are faced with the daunting task of assuming responsibilities they aren’t trained for. In most cases, there’s neither sufficient time (nor adequate budgets) to train technical personnel. Lack of money fosters lack of training, which leads to wrong decisions and expensive corrections.

Many people working in PIC lack the proper training needed to make appropriate decisions and most of them don’t even know the basics. It’s not uncommon, then, for PIC engineers to ask fundamental questions such as:

  • How does an orifice plate work; with a square root output? Why?
  • How can I describe all this logic? What’s a logic diagram?

There have been cases where “experienced” PIC personnel faced a ground loop problem because the transmitter and receiver had their signals grounded, and they did not know the solution.

Additionally, with the present situation of operating with skeleton staff, everyone is busy. Most managers recognize the need for training, but how can a manager justify sending employees to a course? Where will the money come from and who would assume their responsibilities while they are in training? 

In-person versus online education

The two most common forms of training for a person who needs to learn about PIC are in-person and online (e-learning) courses. A multitude of in-person courses are available. Many are available from major vendors and organizations such as the ISA. However, they typically are not offered in a sequential format to allow a person to start with the basics and advance to more complex topics. These courses often are geared for a person who already has some knowledge of PIC.

From a practical point of view, the solution for someone who wants to learn about PIC in an organized fashion, in a condensed time frame, is an online course. With online training, a student uses a computer to learn while remaining at their home base. This approach provides training without the employee having to travel. With e-learning, training costs are minimized while the students progress at a convenient pace. With good practical instructional material, fit to the course, students learn and can pass exams to confirm their acquired knowledge. Instructor-led online courses, through a virtual classroom, typically are set on a weekly basis, in the evening, for an hour or so.

Online course benefits

Instructor-led online PIC training, when accompanied by good quality course notes, quizzes, and exams, provides students with the knowledge and confidence needed to grasp this field.

Online learning can replace many in-person courses—but not all. On the plus side, online learning provides cost savings and allows student to study at their own pace without leaving their day-to-day job.

On the negative side, the teacher-student interaction is slightly reduced (but is still available through either verbal or written communication). In addition, online learning can’t provide hands-on training such as equipment maintenance. A dedicated training facility, often at a vendor facility, provides this training.

Online courses can offer great advantages over in-person courses for universities (who run the courses), for employers (who typically pay for such courses), and for employees (who attend the courses).
Universities reduce training costs because they do not require training space as well as instructor travel and accommodation expenses.

Employers benefit from lower employee training costs and absence avoidance. There is no absence from work (because training is provided in the evenings after working hours) as well as saving on employee travel expenses.

Employees benefit because they acquire a university-based quality education as well as maintain personal responsibilities and activities avoiding distant travel.

Typical PIC course content

A typical and complete PIC online course could be presented in three modules spread over a year and it would cover the different phases of PIC from a nonmathematical, practical point of view. Theory such as Laplace transform and bode plots has little value in day-to-day plant operation and is likely to be forgotten shortly after the course is completed.

The three modules also should include basic concepts along with the engineering and the installation of PIC equipment. A time frame of one-year spread over the three modules allows students gradually to apply and practice the information learned.

Each module should require about two months to complete, including online quizzes, followed by an online exam. Topics that could help online learners might include:

  • The basics of PIC, including the different control functions, types of control loops, and continuous vs. discrete control
  • The identification and symbols used in PIC
  • The different types of field instrumentation, how they operate, their advantages and disadvantages, and the application of the different types of sensors for analysis, flow, level, pressure and temperature measurements, as well as control valves
  • The requirements for control rooms and the design of control panels
  • The concepts and implementation of alarm and trip systems
  • The different types of computer-based control systems, including programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and distributed control systems (DCSs), as well as a review of the basic requirements for a good operator interface
  • The documentation required for PIC and for front-end engineering and detailed design
  • The requirements for a successful installation, instrument checkout and controller tuning
  • Project implementation and project management
  • Decision making tools – auditing, evaluating plant needs, justification and control system evaluation.

Online PIC training programs currently are being taught in North America at only three universities (as part of their continuing education programs) and under the title of “Process Instrumentation and Control”:

  1. The University of Kansas
  2. Penn State University
  3. Dalhousie University (Canada)

These programs offer a university certificate awarded after the successful completion of the three modules, quizzes, and final exams. The three modules represent about 150 classroom hours. The universities recommend that participants take modules 1, 2 and 3 in sequential order. However, students with prior subject knowledge have taken the modules in a different order and have successfully passed the quizzes and exams.

Knowledge helps engineers avoid unnecessary mistakes that cause downtime and waste money. An online PIC certificate program lets employers avoid the lost time and travel expenses of in-person courses. It also allows employees to acquire, at their own pace, the PIC know-how needed for the successful implementation and operation of PIC systems and components. They earn a university certificate that confirms their acquired knowledge and then have the ability to apply it in a real-world process manufacturing environment.

Nabil (Bill) Battikha, P.E., is president, Bergotech Inc. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Keywords: education, process instrumentation, process control

Process instrumentation and control (PIC) is crucial to manufacturing, but many engineers lack formal training or knowledge.

Engineers looking to learn more would benefit from online courses to gain the necessary knowledge at a lower cost to them and their employer.

PIC education helps engineers avoid costly and unnecessary mistakes.

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About the author

Nabil (Bill) Battikha is a registered professional engineer with over 35 years of engineering and hands-on experience in the field of PIC, working mainly in the USA and Canada. He has written books on PIC, all published by the ISA. At present, Battikha is the president of Bergotech Inc., a firm specializing in online engineering education.

Author Bio: Nabil (Bill) Battikha, P.E., is president, Bergotech Inc.