How to Build an Automation Team

Successful Machine Builders and System Integrators Find the Best People, Fill Skills Gaps, and Manage and Nurture Technology-Savvy Teams

By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

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February 2011Oh sure, there's no "i" in "team." However, there are many of them in every group of people, and getting them all to work together isn't easy—especially if they're engineers.

As a result, securing the best individuals with the right skills, and finding the right balance for each in a larger group is difficult enough for many machine builders. It's even harder these days, when new technological advances arrive so quickly, when many experienced engineers are retiring, and when chronic economic recessions make it hard for companies to invest in areas such as training that too often are viewed as non-essential. All of these factors contribute to much larger, faster-widening and harder-to-close skills gaps in many organizations and teams.

Fortunately, battle-hardened managers and leaders at some machines builders have learned and grown wise in the ways of finding, recruiting and fitting new engineers and other staffers into their teams and operations, and then encouraging cooperation and innovation and managing for long-term competitiveness and success. Sounds simple, but just like anything worthwhile, true team building is easier said than done. Thankfully, it also gets easier with willingness, practice and patience.

Seek Open Minds 

Naturally, building an effective automation team begins with finding the best people, and there are some common attributes that most machine builders seem to focus on in their searches. "We first look for a strong core knowledge in controls or electrical engineering, but also seek people who are open to learning about ancillary kinds of engineering," says Lou Wroblewski, president of Premier Tool Works (, Burr Ridge, Ill., which manufactures automated spring detangling machines and other equipment. Premier, which has 15 employees, is a division of Integral Automation. "We need people who care about what's happening on the other side of the shop, and won't get their noses out of joint or feel like a fish out of water when they have to do peripheral tasks. Because we're such a small shop, there's less distance between us, which makes it easy to confer, but everyone has to be more aware of all aspects of each project. Not everyone is suited to this environment, but being versatile and having overlapping skills is even more important in difficult economic times."

Wroblewski recently invented Premier's new 7300 Series high-speed detangling, feeding and dispersing system, which handles larger 5/16x11/2 in. springs for pharmaceutical and medical devices. However, its new high-speed sensors and input cards on PLCs had to be developed using high-speed image capture and photo analysis to learn about the chaotic environment in the new detangler. "We bought a camera and vision system, but we also sent our controls engineer out for training, and he came back and trained the mechanical and electrical guys," he says. "When we need to learn about a new area, we send the person with the closest knowledge and the innate ability to pick up on the new subject. With the 7300, we learned faster about the dynamics of our tooling design and the behavior characteristics of the springs as they were running, and this lets us configure and adjust the machine quicker. This also reduced development time, helped us meet efficiency requirements quicker, and deliver it on time."

Recruiting and Skill Checking

Because colleges and universities still don't teach many necessary control and automation skills, machine builders must make sure potential staffers are well educated, but also willing to be trained in how their organizations and teams practice engineering. This can make for some pretty intense interviews, according to Tommy Pool, electrical engineering manager at Kliklok-Woodman (, Decatur, Ga., which builds vertical form, fill, seal (VFFS) and other machines.

"During interviews, I'll put problems on a whiteboard and put candidates on the spot," Pool says. "I'll ask them to draw velocity and position diagrams, sketch a Cat 3 safety circuit with two removable guards and two fixed guards, draw a speed/torque curve of a typical servo or DC motor, or show the math involved in a PID loop. This is all stuff they ought to know, but it can be pretty stressful. Some of them do well and some don't, but it helps us decide who to take a chance on."

Pool also recruits by watching who asks questions in the conference sessions at trade shows. "I look at what people do to keep abreast of new knowledge," he says. "When I interview candidates, I try to look closely at their personality. We won't hire a brilliant guy if he won't fit in. After a certain point, brilliance isn't what we need. I mean, someone could write the most creative, complex code, but it's no good if no one else can follow it."

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