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Continuous improvement: The value of lifelong learning

Thursday January 20, 2011 Written by  Ian Verhappen
Every working professional - myself included - is expected to continually develop new work skills. In fact, depending on your role and licensure, ongoing professional development is often a mandatory component for maintaining your licence. Here in Alberta, a professional engineer must have documented 300 "points" in each three-year period, and must report their activities in this area on an annual basis when renewing their membership.

There are different types of recognized credentials: certificates, licences and certifications. Certificates are evidence that you have taken and successfully completed a course or series of courses on one subject. They are often received at the end of a training class or related program. Licences provide a legal right to practice in a broad area. Licences require education, comprehensive examination and, in most cases, continuing education/professional development. Certification is generally applied to a narrower area than a licence, and requires education, experience, an exam and continuing education/professional development. In many cases, certification complements the skills of a licenced professional, signifying an area of specialization or competency in one or more areas. In the automation field, ISA's Certified Automation Professional (www.isa.org/cap) is one example of certification.

A certification program provides a mechanism for an employer to ensure a high level of skill and competency of employees, and set a standard level of knowledge and skill for employees. Highly skilled employees help ensure that proper safety practices are used in a facility, protecting the workplace and public safety. With the wide use of outsourcing of engineering functions by industry today, a certification program provides a standard tool to qualify new hires and contractors with qualifications verified by an independent third party.

For the employee, certification programs help to establish a professional identity and provide documentation of the individual's knowledge, experience and education to current and prospective employers.

ISA's Certified Automation Professional (CAP) program has been designed for those working in the automation (process and factory) market. The skills required and tested for this certification fall into two broad categories: domains (skills required during different stages of a project life cycle) and technical competencies.

Domains include those skills used in each of the following different stages of a project:
• Feasibility study: How to differentiate between different options or approaches to a project.
• Definition: Understanding a project in sufficient detail to be able to prepare a cost estimate for funding.
• System design: Actual design of the project itself with associated drawings, documentation and specifications.
• Development: Configuration and testing of the systems and associated databases, operator interfaces and network/node interactions.
• Deployment: Commissioning and startup of systems.
• Operation and maintenance: Tasks associated with maintaining systems in their optimal condition, as well as upgrades and the addition of new equipment to an existing system.

The second dimension being tested and verified by the CAP program is your technical competencies in the following areas:
• Basic continuous control: This covers an understanding of basic concepts of control, such as PID control and process dynamics.
• Discrete and manufacturing control: This covers the basic skills used in the manufacturing sector, including the IEC 61131 programming languages, batch operations (ISA-88), etc.
• Advanced control: Building on the above two skill sets, this area covers multivariate control, unit optimization and interactions between different unit operations.
• Reliability, safety and electrical: You must demonstrate an understanding of electrical codes, safety standards, such as IEC 61151, and how this affects overall system reliability.
• Integration and software: You must understand how systems are built from the separate components above, combining hardware and software, including the ISA-95 four-layer model.
• Deployment and maintenance: You must know how to implement the above and keep it operational to maximize run length and reliability.
• Work structure (projects, teams): Automation tends to be a support skill to projects and operations, so it is critical that we know how to work in teams.

If you are interested in pursuing this certification, ISA has material for the CAP program, for both online and offline studying, with exam proxy centres around the world. Once you have successfully obtained your CAP certification, it is good for three years. Provided you have maintained your professional development activities during that time, the recertification process is straightforward documentation of your activities and payment of the registration fee.

Certification is but one component of continuing your life journey and demonstrating ongoing personal development on the technical side. Life, however, requires continuous evolution of the complete person, so do not forget to develop in other dimensions as well (i.e. soft skills and interpersonal skills).

Life is about growing, but only you can find the right ingredients for your garden.


Ian Verhappen, P.Eng. is an ISA Fellow, ISA Certified Automation Professional, and a recognized authority on Foundation Fieldbus and industrial communications technologies. Verhappen operates a global consultancy, Industrial Automation Networks Inc., specializing in field level industrial communications, process analytics and heavy oil / oil sands automation. Feedback is always welcome via e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



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