Online resource web sites such as www.process-heating.com provide good primer materials to provide unfamiliar users with control terms and other basic information.


A helpline or hotline, or a telephone line providing customers or clients with direct access to a company or professional service, can be a useful resource when used in an effective, efficient manner. Too often, though, that is not the case. This column is for
  • Managers and operators of process plants for whom control is just one among their many jobs.
  • Maintenance technicians under pressure to bring a process back online.
  • Specifiers, designers and builders of process equipment.
  • The overloaded customer-support desks of equipment suppliers.

You are your worst enemy if you:
  • Cannot or will not take time to read manuals and online frequently asked questions (FAQs).
  • Ask vague or incomplete questions that cannot yield an answer.
  • Make your helpline person deliver a seminar on your technology before he can talk to you.


Online newsgroups can be a good source of user experience, but judge them rigorously.

This is why some helplines are heavily manned and defended -- and you never get the same person twice.

Some suppliers are small and nimble enough to have named people that you can get to know and who can remember you and your case. The helpline staffer may be from the manufacturer or sometimes from a distributor or manufacturer’s representative. Better still is a technical representative who is familiar with the tricks and traps of your specific process. Here you can get five dollars of consulting for every dollar you spend on product. Shop there and use them.

Look on their web sites. Read the educational and tutorial material. The best companies also post manuals for both current and obsolete products--those manuals that your predecessors lost.

Before you call:
  • Poke around the process and study it and its manuals and drawings.
  • Take time to construct your question. Be ready to e-mail questions and sketches to your helper. Make it as good for him as being in your plant on the job.
  • Describe your process and the work passing through it. Include mass; materials; shapes and sizes; flows, temperatures, pressures, speeds, location and capacity of the heat or cool source; location, size and type of your various sensors; and final control elements.

If you man a help desk:
  • You have to avoid the time-consuming roles of interrogator, educator and mind reader. Don’t hesitate to give a list of the answers you need before you can return a useful solution.
  • Report back to your product and manual creators any shortcomings in design or the human factor in equipment or documents, especially those covering safety issues.
  • Consider the number of manuals in one’s daily life. Beat on the creators the importance of ruthless brevity and clarity.

The caller is often unfamiliar with control technology and its vocabulary. You may suggest a study of relevant articles from Process Heating’s archives online.

Newsgroups online such as http://groups.google.com/group/sci.engr.control can be a good source of user experience, but judge them rigorously. More often than not, you will see that the questions are too brief and short on specifics to yield a solution. You will also see a large number of seriously uninformed, reckless and dangerous solutions.

Sidebar: How to Make the Most of a Helpline Call

Users: You need to be well informed and diligent to ask a question.

Suppliers: You have to refine your grasp of the arts of compression and lucidity when you are designing equipment and writing critical user material.

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