Brian Smyth: Power Engineer, Power Teacher

June 16, 2011
By the time Brian Smyth was a college senior at Montana Tech, he knew power engineering would be his focus.

By the time Brian Smyth was a college senior at Montana Tech, he knew power engineering would be his focus. While working as an intern for a small manufacturing plant, Brian designed a capacitor bank that eliminated the plant’s power factor problem. This sparked his interest and, afterward, he applied for the Master’s program.

A native of Butte, Montana, Smyth was inspired to study engineering by his father, who was an electrical engineer in the Hydro division of Montana Power, now Northwestern Energy. There he designed and worked on control systems in dams.

“I saw the pride my father took in his profession,” said Smyth. “He showed me how important his work was and how everyone could benefit from him doing a good job. He took me into dams when I was young and taught me all about how they worked. That caught my interest and made me want to be an engineer.”

As a university student and then as a visiting professor, Brian taught classes at Montana Tech, including E-Circuits, Power Analysis, Instrumentation and Controls, E-Machines, E-Circuits II, and the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Project.

Today, Smyth is both an R&D power engineer and a power engineering instructor, and he has taught seven different courses for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories’ SEL University.

“Learning is never-ending,” Smyth said. “Technology changes very fast, and keeping up with technology makes transitioning to new things a lot easier. New processors that are faster, more reliable, and less expensive come out almost weekly. The same thing is happening in the power protection industry. Digital relays are essentially mini computers, and every year there is something new and improved. Understanding what new features are available on new products allows for better implementation.”

When Smyth teaches, he draws from his work in research and design. “I believe that to develop high-quality relays, you have to know them inside and out—to know what the relay is capable of, such as its processing power, accuracy, and speed. In power system protection, design is crucial, because the main objective is to create a relay that can identify various types of faults, so the correct decision can be made on taking a line out of service.”

Smyth brings this philosophy into the classroom as he distills complex concepts down to the basics. But while he works to teach his students what they need to know, he believes a student’s knowledge comes from within. “If a student can interact and understand why things are done in a particular way, they will learn a lot more. The more they are engaged in class, the more they will learn. If they don’t ask questions, then I will.”

Smyth’s goal is for every student to learn something, especially that pride, dedication, and a commitment to a lifetime of learning are all important when building products that protect the power system and make electric power safer, more reliable, and more economical.

When not protecting the power system or helping others do the same, Smyth enjoys working on cars. He and his father recently restored a ’57 Chevy and a ’77 Corvette. In another project, Smyth added a turbo exhaust fuel and ignition system to a four-cylinder 2002 Acura RSX. Clearly, this guy likes power.

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