Evolving Controls Complexity

Readers Weigh in on Growing Controls Challenges; Although PLCs Have Gotten Easier to Program, Document and Connect, That Leads to Growing Data Complexity

By Aaron Hand

In last month's issue, this column detailed the results of Control Design's 2010 Salary Survey. To get some anecdotal feedback from respondents, I checked with our three prize winners to get their perspectives. Each winners of a $100 gift card, Jim Fillmore, Tracy Biddle and Joe Stanley told me not only about their job satisfaction and concerns, but also gave me insight into how their roles — and the technology they work with — have changed over their years in the business.

All three controls engineers have several years of experience behind them, and have seen technology change significantly over that time, in some ways making things easier, but in other ways more complex. PLCs have gotten easier to program and document over the years, for example, but because of that engineers are also executing more complex programs. And because communication advances have made it easier to collect data, there's a whole lot more of it to collect and process. "It is getting easier to connect devices so they can communicate, but the skill and complexity comes from turning all that data into meaningful information," Stanley says.

Stanley is a controls engineer at Dematic, which manufactures conveyor systems in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Although the conveyor industry seems to be slow adopters of new technology, he says, changes have come primarily in the form of the complexity of controls.

"Programs have become more complex as PLCs have more memory and faster processors," says Stanley, who began his career as an electronics technician in the U.S. Air Force, then earned his electrical engineering degree at night school while employed at an electric company then a design firm, before moving on to Dematic. "The focus seems to be shifting from how fast can we move a box to how smoothly can we run the system. We try to look ahead and prevent bottlenecks before they occur."

Fillmore is a controls department manager at HA Industries, which makes plastic welder machines in Sterling Heights, Michigan. He got into this industry as a teen, through a friend whose dad owned a controls/panel building company, and he's been in the business ever since — more than 30 years.

Over that time, Fillmore has seen the technology change quite a bit. "Technology has been changing very rapidly, especially in the past three years," he says. "The technology is advancing almost too rapidly. Customers want tons of data and diagnostics." Writing software for a simple machine has gone from taking just a couple days to taking a week now, he adds.

With the dip in the economy over the past few years, engineers have found themselves taking on more responsibilities than they had to in the past. As noted in the salary survey write-up, more than half of our survey respondents said that their companies have experienced layoffs in the past year, and more than half noted hiring freezes as well.

"I have had to take on more roles of responsibility that would have otherwise been another person's job," notes Biddle, senior controls engineer at Miller Weldmaster in Navarre, Ohio. "Taking on more job roles usually means less time to refine and increase skills and develop new technologies," he adds.

Biddle began his career for a company making robotic equipment for the semiconductor industry. After 10 years, he went to a company supplying equipment for niche segments of the packaging industry before moving on to his current role at Miller Weldmaster, which makes custom heat-sealing equipment for industrial fabrics.

Biddle notes that networking advances such as Ethernet have simplified communication to and from PLCs. "I still think that we have a long way to go to open the communications standards by making them open and interoperable amongst all vendors," he says. "Today, vendors are still trying to protect their legacy investment, and are unwilling to completely tear down the walls that were built 25 years ago."

It has also become easier to support Miller Weldmaster's machines globally, Biddle says. "Through the use of the Internet and VPN technologies, I am able to access my machines, diagnose or upgrade customers from over 87 different countries in which our machines are located."