This is what makes a great controls engineer or designer

June 3, 2016
A great controls engineer or designer expands duties and plays well with others.
About the author
Dave Perkon is technical editor for Control Design. He has engineered and managed automation projects for Fortune500 companies in the medical, automotive, semiconductor, defense and solar industries.

I spent many years as control designer and programmer, and, even as I worked my way into the upper levels of management, I stayed closely involved with all of the details. During that time, I saw a variety of engineering personality types. Three I noticed often were the ostriches, the know-it-alls and the good ones. With the good ones, it was always more than just technical abilities; it was the ability to change hats often.

Down in the dirt and trenches, I have seen many engineers working in the same engineering position for years. That's not a bad thing. The ostrich—the worker bees, if you like—are the guys getting designs on paper and creating the lines of code that define the parts and logic for successfully running machines. The bad thing is hiding at your desk, just barely doing what is required.

The attitude I really noticed was “that’s not my job.” Often, others comment that the person is just the "awkward engineer" who doesn't want to get involved and sticks his or her head in the sand. Although the engineer has honed and developed excellent skills over the years, the ostrich doesn't push them to the forefront to make projects successful. They stay more in the background and only do what is required. I have often seen them let problems and errors occur, so they didn't need to get involved at that meeting. These ostrich types could do more, much more to improve a project.

Also read: What the ability to design or program a simple start/stop circuit says about you 

At the other end of the scale is the know-it-all engineer. I have to admit they can be much worse than the ostriches. They think they are so smart, spewing all kinds of facts, that they lose touch with reality or forget what's important. They can also push others from the proper design path and are often so clueless that they don't understand how great they are at annoying customers, vendors and fellow team members.

I've seen these know-it-alls push the mechanical engineer, control designers and programmers to do things that they know are incorrect because the know-it-all sounded like he knew what he was talking about. I have also heard a know-it-all talk to a customer where literally every sentence out of his mouth was on the list of things to never say to a customer. You know-it-alls could probably benefit from hanging out with an ostrich for a bit, because the good ones will just tell you to shut up. At a minimum, you need to start toning it down.

When it comes to controls guys, there is a lot of space between the ostriches and the know-it-alls, but the effective and valuable controls guy—the good ones—are certainly the middle-of-the-road types, and they wear many different hats. That's really the key. While technical competence is required, they are also involved with the sales and machine concepts, system design, control design and programming, and then they pull it all together during integration and startup.

The system engineer hat                                 

Regardless of the structure of the business, the controls guy should be working with all departments, not just fixing control problems. Sales, management and design personnel, and the companies they work for, would benefit if the controls resource—the controls designer and programmer—became more involved with the overall project. Many of the controls guys out there fit the mold of a system designer. That's the money position; it has big money-saving potential for the project and company.

The system engineer is typically involved from the start of the project to completion with involvement with everything from sales and machine concept through design, startup and final acceptance.

Putting on the sales hat and working with sales guy to clearly define a machine's functionality and operation will help to improve the machine concept. It also helps customer confidence if the controls guy can work with them and lay out the system control architecture.

The good controls guys should definitely have a hardware-design and a programming hat. However, once the design is complete, there are significant building, integration, startup and acceptance-testing tasks that remain, and the controls guy must be closely involved with all. The involvement should start early and stay late.

As with any career, doing one thing is good, and having expertise is important. But good controls guys should be wide-ranging. Talk to a customer; do a quote; sell a project; create a great money-saving machine concept. If you are excellent at hardware design, it's time to learn programming and vice versa. Step it up and wear more hats. The good controls guys can definitely help to improve machines and expand manufacturing in the United States. I like that hat.

Home page image courtesy of fantasista at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About the Author

Dave Perkon | Technical Editor

Dave Perkon is contributing editor for Control Design. He has engineered and managed automation projects for Fortune 500 companies in the medical, automotive, semiconductor, defense and solar industries.

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