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Chris Bontje: Connecting to the Box

July 20, 2017
Bontje knows the challenges customers face when commissioning and troubleshooting equipment in the industrial control systems realm.

Chris Bontje’s technical background and having had his “boots on the ground” has allowed him to empathize with students in his courses. As an application specialist at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Inc., he knows the challenges customers face when commissioning and troubleshooting equipment in the industrial control systems realm.

“Sometimes they will not have touched a particular box in years, and all of the sudden they need to recall how to connect to it, read settings files, etc.,” Bontje said. “This presents a particularly troublesome problem when there are literally dozens or hundreds of different said ‘boxes’ in their system. I use this to really emphasize the ‘this is what you need to know’ aspects of the courses.”

Bontje has been involved in the integration, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), and automation disciplines since 2000. He graduated from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in 2000 and has worked for a variety of firms in the United States and Canada performing remote terminal unit, programmable logic controller, and SCADA programming and system design. He has been with SEL since 2011 and works as an application specialist in automation for the south-central region, which includes Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Missouri.

T&D World visited with Bontje on how he got into industrial controls and his philosophy on teaching.

Q: When and why did you decide to get into the power industry?

During the minor recession of 2000–2001, I was laid off from a not particularly interesting IT network administrator job. After searching for work for a few weeks, out of the blue I received a call from a close friend from college who had recently been hired by a contracting company to work on programming these boxes (which I’d never heard of!) called RTUs. Their project scope had just been expanded, and they needed another resource to help. I jumped on a plane to Chicago, and the rest is history. I absolutely fell in love with the low-level troubleshooting aspect of much of this style of equipment. Whereas full-blown PC environments make troubleshooting somewhat difficult to determine what specifically has gone wrong due to the scope of operating systems, software, etc., industrial control devices allow you to really get down to the nitty-gritty to find and correct problems.

Q: Best thing about your job right now?

Helping customers, full stop. The sense of pride and satisfaction from taking what can sometimes be very odd and puzzling customer equipment problems and working through the various stages of investigation to find a resolution is fantastic.

Q: What courses do you present?

In general, I have always taught automation and communications-related courses. This includes product-specific courses, such as for the SEL-2032, SEL-3620, SEL RTAC, SEL ICON®, and other theory-type courses that cover communications topics such as serial, Ethernet, protocols, and protocol decoding.

Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your past experience that you want to communicate to students or participants?

Never stop learning. If there is some technology or feature in a device that you don’t understand, carve out a bit of time to educate yourself on it. It could save your tail down the line!

Q: Why is learning about automation important?

Automation and controls is an ever-changing field; new devices are constantly pushing the envelope as far as the type of schemes and systems that can be custom-programmed to fit every user’s need.  When I look at the capabilities of automation devices from 20 years ago and look at them today, it is a bit humbling to see how far they have come. With the advanced features offered by devices like the RTAC, what I really feel we bring to the table is making sense of the complexity of such devices.  Sure, there are 5,000+ settings in this device—but you only need to touch three of them to get your relay online and talking.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’ve got two small kids; what’s spare time? Seriously though, I enjoy gardening and carpentry, and trying to pass those passions on to the little ones.

Q: Anything else you would like to add about your teaching philosophy?

Be sure to craft your course delivery to your audience, and listen to where your students are at and what they want to learn. Talking above somebody (or a group of folks) or trying to be the smartest guy in the room doesn’t do anybody any favors.

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