I sat down recently with a pipe spool fabricator to ask, “how can pipers do a better job of creating fabrication Isometrics (ISOs) to make their work easier?” I got a list of suggestions, e.g., put in all the required dimensions, label correctly and completely, dimension to centerlines and flanges, etc. All were good to pass on to piping engineers and designers worldwide.


“But,” I asked, “doesn’t automatic generation of ISOs from 3D models eliminate those errors?” “No,” he replied. “Unless the model is correct and the software is set up right, the generated ISO’s are just as hard to work with. Data is spread over multiple sheets and other problems can make even these automated ISOs hard to use for spools.” Indeed, setting up ISOGEN and similar tools is the perennial topic at CAD user conferences. Even experienced designers require extra training to tune the models and software to get the right results.


Piping is typical of high value-added professions fighting three spiraling trends:


  1. 1.High hourly rates of trained and experienced piping designers pushes design costs up
  2. 2.High automation pushes design hours down.
  3. 3.Highly trained and experienced designers to make automation work efficiently.
  4. It’s not just in piping but a host of specialties: medicine, law, aviation, etc. A decreasing number of superstars with increasing capabilities are needed to make the engines of society run right.


This is the “automation paradox”, the computer-aided answer to the managers’ challenge: Productivity is not doing more by working harder but working smarter and on work that means more. Piping designers use smarter tools but need lots of training and experience to be smart enough to use them. It leads to a seeming insurmountable “barrier to entry” for the piping profession.


The boom and bust nature of the process industry can mask this underlying cycle of fewer hours of more automated design performed by a more select team of super users. After every bust, the jobs come back but they are fewer in number and specify higher levels of education and experience.

Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) employers cry, “I have the jobs but can’t find the people,” as if there is some imaginary government-funded technical school system is training and mentoring pipers year after year in just the right skills to charge to a job at 8:00 AM Monday morning. High school graduates go in one end of this utopian assembly line and seasoned pipers come out the other.


Government supported higher education can’t meet this need. Government funding horizons are rarely farther than the next election or about 1-2 years. In recessions it is shorter, as the preferred model is to give an unemployed worker just enough training to get back into another job. Colleges, being practical, train generalists, not the productive specialists needed in that EPC CAD seat. It’s magical thinking to expect super pipers to come fresh from colleges.

Industry itself is just beginning to realize their problem. It has been cheaper to extend the life of existing, expensive, experienced pipers than to extensively train paid fresh graduates, even with generalized 2 or 4 year associate degrees and even if it hollows out corporate human capital. Eventually, though, clients cannot believe that EPC firms have so little faith in their future, that they will not train and credential proper staff.


And because EPC’s have invested heavily in automation and integration fulfilling their proprietary practices, they must train longer to deliver on the value promised their clients. There cannot be “B” and “C” players. There can only be “A” players and “A” apprentices.


As projects replenishes overhead and funds growth for everyone, clients and EPCs need to take the long term human capital interests of the industry into consideration (read as spend extra $) as they capitalize and fund each single project. This means Clients need to demand experience AND credentials, EPCs need to subsidize staff willing to teach at nearby schools, 2 and 4 year programs need to increase piping practical content and EPCs and clients need more internships.


Finally, how can junior pipers cover the “last mile” be covered in solving the training paradox, i.e., to efficiently reach power user status? There is little time for formal classroom training and the needs of each designer can vary. The answer lies in “Just-in-time” training through short videos, tutorials and briefings at the disposal of designers as they begin a new and unfamiliar task. We do it today with all sorts of office tools, that is, to stop and study a command right before we use it. Design knowledge has to be available at the precise moment needed to teach or refresh skills.


Only then, can we solve the automation paradox in piping design.


William G. Beazley, PhD, Executive Director, SPED