Wanted: Control engineer with the right stuff

This OEM needs a controls engineer who understands how to balance implementing new technologies while providing highly reliable equipment with uptimes greater than 99%.

By Michael Harrington, PE


ur company is an OEM supplier of material-handing equipment, specialty folder-gluing equipment for the corrugated and paperboard industries, and modular machining centers for the machine tool industry.
 My responsibilities include looking for new talent to bring into our organization. With the economy gaining momentum, Alliance and other machine builders will be entering a hiring phase. I&rsquod like to share some thoughts about what we look for in a controls engineer, and why we seek those characteristics.

The OEM market is much more competitive than it was five years ago. Machines are more complicated and require higher levels of control and interface. Advances in controller technologies, touchscreens and memory have allowed us to make significant advances.

In the &ldquoold&rdquo automation control paradigm, it was easier to find, hire and retain controls engineers. Simply stated, a controls engineer didn&rsquot require as much knowledge and expertise as he or she does today.

These days, customers are requesting, and in some cases requiring, &ldquoGeneration 3&rdquo machines including state-of-the-art user interfaces. Customers no longer accept expensive machines with just a few buttons or switches to control its operation.

Those customers are looking for real-time feedback from electrical and mechanical components delivered via hyperlinks between the machine code and the diagnostic/recovery/help software. They want real-time quality inspection systems and effective methods to reject bad product immediately.

Soon, permanently mounted, integrated web-based camera systems will allow service technicians from remote sites to see what is happening with a machine to allow tuning and adjustments.

Generally speaking, machines need to be smarter and self-correcting because customers are reducing maintenance staffs.

In addition, most industrial OEMs compete globally, shipping machines to locations around the world. Many companies, Alliance among them, are trying to build machines from one set of schematics at multiple manufacturing sites around the world. Documentation standards differ between regions (to say nothing of languages) and control circuits may be different. There are likely to be myriad differences in &ldquoidentical&rdquo machines that happen to be shipping to different parts of the world.

All these issues require a higher level of training, experience and discipline from controls engineers (as well as our mechanical engineers). As equipment becomes more sophisticated, it is not unusual for 40–50% of initial development costs to be related to the controls system. In my personal experience, I have seen this number exceed 50%. 

Much of the control system development costs are related to documentation and programming. Our controls engineers are being asked to do more in a shorter amount of time. Gone are the days when a controls engineer could release a wiring schematic and BOM, then sit down at the machine and bang out code.

Today, we need engineers and programmers who fully embrace the IEC61131-3 coding practices. Object-oriented programming and unified modeling language (UML) techniques require up-front planning, design and, most importantly, discipline. Alliance has embraced this programming technique and we now focus on using function blocks wherever possible. This eventually will allow us to reuse significant amounts of code.

We have investigated high-end electrical design software packages and now use Promis-e as our tool of choice. Today, if there is software that improves efficiency, it cannot be ignored. Any additional expense or training involved is recouped quickly by faster turnaround time and less rework caused by design errors.

So, what are we looking for? I&rsquoll bet you have a similar list. We want good, disciplined engineers who are willing to think outside the box in terms of control system design, but relish working inside the new paradigm of highly-documented and object-oriented code.

We need people who understand safety codes from all major industrialized areas of the world and can speak knowledgably with inspectors, maintenance supervisors and others. 

We need engineers who want to actively participate in UML and DFMA (Design for Manufacturing and Assembly) meetings, so we can make our products better and more user-friendly and bring them to market faster and with fewer changes.

We need engineers who understand how to balance implementing new technologies while providing highly reliable equipment with uptimes greater than 99%.

Perhaps these days all I simply need to say is we need a controls engineer who can do everything for everyone.

The truth is that we actually do need such a controls engineer right now, so feel free to contact me if you think you have the right stuff.

Michael Harrington, PE, is director of engineering for material handling solutions at Alliance Machine Systems (www.alliancellc.net). You can contact him at mharrington@alliancellc.net.