Voices: Cechowski

How Technology Has Influenced Engineers

Work in Harmony: Despite Differences in Their Approach to Problem-Solving, Older and Younger Engineers Begin to Appreciate Each Others’ Skill Sets and Methods

By Sarah Cechowski

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.

Social media networks such as LinkedIn open up opportunities to connect with professionals with similar interests, says Kailash Mariappan, senior automation engineer at manufacturer Saint-Gobain. Mariappan was looking for answers on LinkedIn about using an iPad for automation. "I found a guy who lives in Spain, and he gave me insight into mobile applications for automation," he says. "It's really amazing how social media is changing the professional world."

Facebook too has been an excellent way to stay connected, says Phil Laurette, controls design engineer for industrial automation system integrator Outbound Technologies. While he uses LinkedIn predominantly for professional relationships and Facebook for personal ones, over time, those lines have become blurred, and many of his professional relationships have become personal ones as well.

"There now are quite a number of engineers that I've known for 15 or more years that I stay connected to on a regular or semi-regular basis," Laurette says. "In the past, I was not able to stay as connected to former colleagues, and often they fell off the face of the earth when we stopped working together. But that's no longer the case."

Who Uses What for Research

When asked what types of content listed in search engine results they prefer to view when doing product research, only two categories elicited a substantial following. Some 81% of survey respondents look to technical articles and whitepapers, and 70% said online articles from publications and news sources were worthwhile. Only 36% value looking at images; 32% prefer YouTube videos; 31% noted online forums; and 12% pointed to blogs.

"In the industry, my feeling is there's really no specific site," Kvech says. "There's no aggregator like there is with other types of industries." Kvech uses a number of digital trade journals including Control Design, Rockwell Automation's The Journal and Modern Metals to stay up to date on the latest products and industry trends.

Tomas Moruno, industrial electronics maintenance technician for weighing systems specialist Comercial Such, reads Vision Systems and Electronic Design to research the latest industry technology. He also watches webinars and videos, and receives whitepapers from Engineering TV on new products in electronic design.

Fage, on the other hand, finds white papers difficult to dig through for product research. The bibles for the plastics industry are Plastics News and Plastics Today. However, Fage says one of the biggest and most up-and-coming tools available on the web is YouTube because its users can see how a process works.

"This is huge because my background is in automation, and now I'm getting into the plastics processing side of the business," he says. "Injection molding, extrusion, blow molding, thermo forming—there are so many different processes. If I want new customers, I need to be able to understand their process before I can help them in their businesses."

The things he looks for in a quality video include what the technology looks like and what the process looks like. Looking at an image or reading a technical paper does not offer the same benefits that video does.

Smith says he watched a recent Microsoft SQL Query about configuration on YouTube that gave him a step-by-step, how-to breakdown. "Rather than following through a thread on how to do something, people will literally have a video capture of their desktop showing you exactly how to go through a specific configuration process or programming procedure," he says.

Hoagland records and posts demonstrations to help educate industry professionals. He develops videos to train new engineers or creates refresher courses for experienced engineers. Two of his most recent videos were on motion control basics and programming an ACR9000 controller, and how to create a custom servomotor file for Compax3.

While Stevic has watched some YouTube videos for his job, he finds them very non-specific to the subject matter he looks for. If things were broken down into much small pieces, videos would be more helpful, he says.

"For example, I set up a VFD [variable-frequency drive] to use a DeviceNet card," he explains. "I looked through the book and, of course, the book covers everything. I called the technical people at the factory, but they can't really show you what you're doing. If there were a two-minute video on what buttons to push and which things to select for setting up a drive on DeviceNet, that would have been wonderful."

Reliable Resources

When asked what resources they turn to when they look for answers to a technical problem, 78% of survey respondents indicated they still prefer to meet or speak directly with their automation suppliers; 61% read online articles; 41% read online forums; 17% read blogs and 9% use LinkedIn groups.

Andy Milluzzi, 2012 Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology gaduate and now research assistant at the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Center for High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing at the University of Florida, follows blogs from Intel, Texas Instruments (TI), MatLab, and Make, a hybrid magazine/book devoted to do-it-yourself (DIY) technology projects.
 
Milluzzi also reads forums hosted by TI, National Instruments and robotics platform Vex IQ. If he has a question, he tends to head to a supplier's forum first because he'll usually get immediate feedback from a representative.

Smith uses HVAC-Talk to help him diagnose flow problems. This particular forum is useful for him because it breaks down electrical engineering and mechanical engineering into respective sub-forums. With Johnson Controls becoming more IT-centric, Smith has started using Microsoft and TechNet forums to find answers to technical problems. He also relies on Johnson Controls' internal company forums for file sharing and viewing new tools employees are developing.

Mariappan also references an internal blog on Saint Gobain's intranet for technical support. If he's experiencing a problem, he'll post a question to the blog, and others within the company will provide insight about their own experiences and the steps they took to find a working solution.

Aiswarya Kolisetty, a 2013 Olin College graduate and now a user-experience engineer for Ford, relies heavily on an internal social site at Ford called Yammer, a space created for employees to share links about Ford or other companies and for user feedback.

But at the end of the day, Kolisetty says it's the knowledge of experienced members on her team that helps her develop the most in her role. The team constantly shares articles back and forth that discuss what's happening in the industry.

Talking to experienced peers and asking about their experiences has helped in the learning process, Kolisetty says. "Talk to people. Ask them questions about their role within the company," she says. "It helps me with what I need to think about when I want to pitch an idea and how that will affect the company. ‘System-level' thinking is something I am really trying to develop."

Other machine builders and system integrators indicate using forums such as PLCtalk, PLCS.net, MrPLC.com and Rockwell Automation's Knowledge Base for FactoryTalk for answers to on-the-job problems.

Fage says LinkedIn is making a huge impact in the automation community through "groups," which function similar to forums. Conducting his own research, Fage found various surveys that said LinkedIn is the most heavily used social media channel in the plastics industry. Fage discovered LinkedIn groups such as Injection Molding Technologies, Machinery for Plastics Processing, Plastics Today and Plastic Injection Molding were not only useful for industry professionals looking for answers to technical problems, but also help service providers like himself reach customers and drive discussions around related topics.

"I found that using LinkedIn groups is credible and people are willing to talk," he says. "If you look at the statistics, comments left per week and activity rates, they are way up. It's really not the end-all though. The problem with the plastics industry is the majority of [workers] are 35 to 58. They're a bunch of old-school kind of guys and not really into social media. So it's not a shoo-in, but it's definitely one way to get in touch with them."

When asked if they have ever used online forums, blogs or LinkedIn discussions to help someone else solve a problem they were having, 49% of survey respondents said they have helped someone on an online form, 78% never have helped someone on a blog, and 81% never have helped someone on a LinkedIn discussion.

Online Dating

We surveyed our audience to see what their relationship was with several different types of interactive resources. Some 48% say they rarely watch live or on-demand webcasts for their jobs. Out of those respondents, 13% don't use them socially either; 40% say they occasionally watch videos from vendors about their products. Out of those respondents, 12% don't use them socially either; 37% say they occasionally read online forums. Out of those respondents, 14% don't use them socially either. Twenty-seven percent of respondents say they rarely use blogs for their jobs. Out of those respondents, 31% don't use them socially either; 18% of respondents say they rarely use social media sites for their jobs. Out of those respondents, 33% say they don't use them socially either.

Webinars tend to be hit or miss in the automation community. Machine builders and system integrators say some of the most recent webinars they watched were by Rockwell Automation about its RSView Machine Edition visualization product and FactoryTalk for HMI software and Ethernet/IP; Phoenix Contact on new product releases; OPCconnect on software solutions; and Fanuc on basic training for robotics and vision.

Smith says the most recent webinars he watched were for product research, training and online video tutorials on a vendor's website. Johnson Controls hosts a monthly online training webinar that reviews consumer product polls, customer surveys and internal employee surveys. Employees use these training webinars to pinpoint which areas of the business the company needs to invest more in training programs.
Smith and other users say LinkedIn has become their number one resources for staying connected with other industry professionals.

"LinkedIn is the Facebook of professionals," Cleveland believes. He's one of many professionals that restrict their professional relationships to LinkedIn and allow their personal relationships to surface on Facebook.

Mariappan and Laurette say they use social sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Pinterest, a web tool that allows users to organize topics they're most interested in by "pinning" them to their own "board" for future ideas in their personal and/or professional lives. But both believe social media use is slow to grow for professional use in the automation industry because of employer restrictions.

Social media use is restricted because otherwise it would be abused, Mariappan says. "If I want to watch a YouTube video, I must receive special approval from my boss. I need to let him know what the video is about and why I want to watch it. Out of all the social media channels out there, there's not enough of a professional community built up on them for them to be useful to the industry yet."

Laurette says social media use is restricted at his company because of the overall stereotype that when employees are on their personal sites during work hours, they're using them for social pleasure and wasting valuable work time.

"I think, on the whole, we're far too busy to use social media for work," Laurette says. "I also think LinkedIn is thought of as a job search site, so employers don't want you to be job searching on their time."

Social Skepticism

While social media's value to the automation industry remains debatable, its purpose has become much more defined. Machine builders and system integrators are in agreement that social media sites were developed to create a community for users with common interests to connect and interact with one another.

"At first, I started using it to connect with old friends, relatives and colleagues," Laurette says. "As time goes on though, we discuss issues, politics, activism. I think there are a host of things that could be considered the purpose of social media."

Brian Wallden, a 2013 Penn State graduate and now process engineer for Proctor & Gamble, says he too started using social media to connect with friends and for entertainment, but as it gets more and more popular, it's starting to be used as a career tool and for networking on a professional level.

There's nothing else out there that compares to the speed and power that social media sites give users to connect with people of common interests, says Saint-Gobain's Mariappan. That initial conversation with the gentlemen in Spain who offered his own experiences using an iPad for automation led the two engineers to discuss projects their companies could work on together in the future.

Cleveland also has seen great success using LinkedIn for international business opportunities. "We do a lot of work in China, and we're getting some pushback on some components we wanted to supply to China," he says. "They would prefer a locally built source in China. I happened to make a connection on LinkedIn with a guy who supplies, in this case, VFDs, so I started talking with him. Now he is doing product quotes with the company for their business in China. I make connections with people I never would have had before."

But proprietary and liability issues continue to be the main reasons automation professionals are wary to adopt social media more prevalently in the industry. The last thing you want is to accidently reveal too much information, and get in trouble with your company for it, Cleveland says.

"The reason I'm hesitant to put information on social media—whether for personal or professional reasons—is because one wrong step and there is a ton of backlash," he says. "It's hard to know where to draw the line, what to share and what not to share. That's why I try to be on the conservative side, and not share a lot. I think that kind of limits its growth."

For others, protecting their company's assets to keep a competitive edge is the main reason they avoid using social media in their jobs. "I don't want my competition to know who my customers are and/or whom I'm serving," Fage says. "The only things I share online are technical education or company milestones."

Currently, vendors are taking advantage of social media sites to advertise their products, but the technical people are looking for communities that provide resources for researching new ideas, and social media doesn't provide that type of platform, says Comercial Such's Moruno. While social sites offer a great avenue to view new vendor products, those vendors aren't telling users how to troubleshoot a product problem.

"A lot of it has to do with the depth of detail that goes into a purchase in a professional field versus one that is more consumer-based," says CHREC's Milluzzi. "There is a huge process that goes into R&D before a final purchase is made. Social media doesn't allow for the deeper research needed to investigate and compare one product to another. Simply watching a demo video of how a product works on a machine will not necessarily be the final factor for a purchase. It's not a good marketplace for engineers to sell to engineers."

Wallden says Facebook has a long way to go to be used for professional development in manufacturing. "If you look at it as just ‘liking' a company, than that's the end of it. With LinkedIn, there's lot of recruiters looking, and you can see who's viewed your profile. Social media is still in that stage where it's slowly growing."

Metlsaw Systems' Kvech doesn't think there's been a site developed that's specific to his industry. "There's no common place that can link us together," he says. "Obviously certain vendors make a site specific to products and questions, but there's no aggregate site that would bring everyone together. That's where I think it lacks."

Too Much Technology?

As the web transforms the way people find information and communicate now, the next-generation of engineers adopt different processes for the way they solve problems, conduct research and build relationships with other professionals. How will the over- abundance of technology and accessibility to information impact the automation industry going forward?

The web and technology will only continue to make the automation community more collaborative, says Doug Boozer, chief of control engineering for Pearson Packaging Systems. "It seems the younger generation is connected to so many more people than I'm used to being connected to. I think [recent graduates] will take advantage of those connections by reaching out to a much broader spectrum of people. The web provides for a much bigger audience for feedback and for research to get ideas."

The younger generations are moving more online and virtual than ever before, Laurette agrees. Many of the younger engineers at Outbound Technologies don't have a single catalog in their cubicles, while Laurette's is full. "As the GenXers move into management, I think we'll see social media become more acceptable for work use," he says. "That generation has grown up totally connected and will be much more inclined to expect that as a norm."

But Moruno believes the newer generations are relying too heavily on electronics to find answers rather than speaking with industry professionals directly to get the answer. Personal relationships, he says, have fallen off. Instead of working with people to develop ideas, the younger generations turn to the web to see what's already been done.

"Nothing is personal anymore, and people's brains have begun to function like machines," Moruno says. "In this industry, the most important thing is the imagination of the people."

Newer generations don't have to do anything but type in a question on Google to get the answer they're looking for, Fage says. That's the difference between old school and new school processes. Fage says newer generations use technology too much as a crutch, which in turn deflates social interaction.

"One of my customers just hired a new mechanical engineer fresh out of college," he says. "One of the business owner's main frustrations is that before this new engineer can do anything, he has to Google it. You need to be at the point where you can go try your idea. Go back to the production floor, and build it, measure it or test it. [Technology] allows these young engineers to operate in a kind of bubble, behind their keyboards and search bars. They're less inclined to rush to failure, to get their hands dirty."

Smith believes it's the responsibility of the education system and automation companies to properly educate the younger generations on how to use the technology they have at their disposal to solve problems correctly. "I have a fairly firm belief that if you run into a problem, and you can't solve the problem, it's because you were too lazy," he argues. "Right now, between Google, Wikipedia and online forums, somebody's got the answer. Somebody's seen what you're dealing with before, unless it's a new product. As long as people feel empowered to do it, there's no problem that can't be solved."

Milluzzi says technology is both a blessing and a curse. While it allows him to connect and share information with others around the world, younger generations have become too reliant on it and are regularly turning to Wikipedia for answers. "People don't want to work with people directly anymore," Milluzzi says. "They prefer to be in contact over email or through IM to communicate."

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