These kids today. Do they really address engineering problem-solving in a radically different manner than their older peers? Has the Internet caused some disharmony between the generations that inhibits their working together? Yes and no.
The Control Design 2014 product research and buying habits survey results, combined with discussions with machine builders and system integrators, suggest a more nuanced picture. In fact, they suggest that the "millennial gap"—the differences in the way each generation approaches the same job—is beginning to narrow.
While there still are age-group-specific differences in how newer and more seasoned engineers relate to social media and digital access, industry veterans and recent graduates are becoming codependent on one another. As these veterans learn to adapt to new technology and web tools that recent graduates grew up reliant on, younger professionals are learning to appreciate the knowledge of the older generations.
It's a Wonderful Web
Machine builders and system integrators say technology has significantly impacted the way they research products, find solutions to on-the-job problems and stay connected to other professionals.
The survey results show that 33% of respondents say searching a supplier's website is their most used method for researching and specifying automation and controls, while 24% mostly meet or speak directly with their automation suppliers' technical engineers or product managers. Eighteen percent say they mostly meet or speak with local distributors; 12% search independent, non-vendor websites; 7% read trade magazines; and only 6% visit suppliers at tradeshows. Somewhat surprisingly, user group conferences were not valued as a product research tool.
PDFs are one of the biggest and simplest changes with respect to technology advances, says Steven Fage, founder and principal at 5 Nines Automation. In 2007, it still was all about the catalog, he says. No one went to the Internet to learn about the respective product.
Now everyone asks for a colorful PDF of the product, a YouTube video or the website on which it can be found. "Oftentimes, customers have done their research before we even get there," Fage says. "When we go there with a catalog they say ‘Sure, I guess I'll take it,' and it's usually the older guys. I'd say the biggest change is they usually know more about your product and the competition than you do, because they've done their research."
Tom Kvech, systems engineer for high-speed saw manufacturer Metlsaw Systems, adds, "We'd have to put in a request and then get the physical hard copy of the product brochure, or we'd have to have a catalog sent to us. By the time we got [the catalog], it was out of date. Now we download the latest PDF. You can search for that product online and have the most up-to-date information."
Also Read: How Automation Professionals Use the Web for Their Jobs
In the past, you could get product help only by contacting vendor support directly or by asking people at your company, says Jason Cleveland, controls engineering manager for turnkey solutions and material handling systems designer Laidig. Now the Internet has become an avenue for researching a particular problem, with search engines spitting out a ton of URLs where you can find people all over the world asking the same question.
"[In the past] it was a whole lot of phone calls, tech support and searching through hard copy manuals," says David Smith, systems designer for Johnson Controls. "Now I can take a problem and search Google, Wikipedia or online forums. Rather than look at a hard copy manual, if I've got a soft copy, I can just search through the PDF. It saves a lot of time."
Thomas Stevic, controls engineer for PLC and motion control solutions provider, Cincinnati Integration & Automation, says when he first started, his intial point of contact would be the vendor because most have a technical support staff to help answer questions. But if they're unable to solve the problem, his next go-to is to search Google.
Forums such as MrPLC.com are great for getting answers from vendors because often the vendor's technical support staff are on them giving feedback on product issues, says Stevic. Online resources like these are much more efficient than calling the vendor and "playing ring around the keypad on your phone," he adds.
But Jonathan Hoagland, senior applications engineer for Parker Electromechanical, disagrees with Stevic. He believes the phone is still the lifeline for his customers to diagnose problems, and it's become easier than ever before. For example, Smith says if he doesn't have direct business with Rockwell Automation, he's unable to contact the company's technical support because he's not an authorized user. But he can connect with people who work for the company or are connected to them through LinkedIn to get the information he's looking for about their products.