Old Skills, New Skills

The Tools Evolve as Technology Advances. But Understanding the Fundamentals Remains the Key

By Hank Hogan

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CD1310 WebCoverFor automation engineers, the future looks more software-centric and network-heavy. So, it'll pay to brush up on or acquire such skills as proficiency in higher-level computer languages, object-oriented programming methodologies, programming design standards, cloud technologies, and maybe even BYOD — short for bring your own device — implementations.

But, in all of this new technology, it's important to remember the song made famous by the movie Casablanca: "As time (and technology) go by, the fundamental things apply." For automation and controls, that means training and understanding a process.

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Start With the Basics
While new technology promises greater capabilities and additional revenue streams, it's important to keep in mind that automation is all about controlling a process, says Jim Campbell, president of system integrator Viewpoint Systems, Rochester, N.Y. That fundamental truth plays a part in what basic skills his company seeks in new employees.

"We typically hire people who are in computer engineering, electrical engineering or mechanical engineering," he says. "We tend to avoid computer scientists because they don't get into the physical world very much. But just basic engineering or engineering technology is important."

Another illustration of the need to satisfy the basics comes from automatic packing system supplier JLS Automation, York, Pa. The company is known for solving problems in the food packaging industry that others can't, claims President Craig Souser.

JLS Automation uses ABB FlexPicker robots for its platform with as many as 20 in a system. In nine out of 10 cases, the solution involves a vision system, as the robots have to deal with an incoming stream of randomly oriented objects of different sizes.

Vision and networking expertise are important to the company's automation engineers, but so too is a grounding in the real world, Souser says. "Historically, we've done best with mechanical engineers, who could then learn about programming and the electrical side of things, as opposed to taking people with really, really strong software background or electrical background, and then trying to turn them into robotics engineers. If you don't understand how physics works and the mechanical world works, you can struggle in robotics."

Fortunately, mechanical engineers coming out of school have a good software background, Souser says. He expects the need for software skills in his company to grow, as the meat industry, for example, begins to embrace increasingly sophisticated automation.

A controls system engineer should know — and understand — the process being worked on, agrees Barrett Davis, partner at system integrator AutoMate of St. Louis. The company specializes in industrial automation and municipal control systems. "Indeed, the best situation is one where the controls engineer understands the process as well as or better than the customer," Davis says. He says this allows the engineer to answer three critical questions: "Are you getting the correct information? Are you getting it at the right time? And are you processing it to give the proper answer?"

When asked to sum up the skill set that's needed in an automation engineer, Davis says "A control system engineer isn't just a programmer. He's got to be a physics guy. He's got to be an electronics guy. He's got to be an electrician. He needs to be a programmer. He needs to be an instrument guy. He needs to be all that balled up into one."

Robert Trask is a TwinCAT 3 specialist with the PC control technology company Beckhoff Automation. He notes that another fundamental skill — that of fully considering a problem — can run up against the understandable desire to begin writing code and attacking a problem immediately. "Increasingly, we're going to have to be thinking about what we're doing before we start pounding." he says.

To illustrate the need for methodical preparation, Trask relates a story about Abraham Lincoln. When asked how to cut down the greatest number of trees in a six hour span, the story goes, the 16th U.S. president said he would spend the first two-thirds of the time sharpening an axe.

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