A Googolplex of Automation Resources

June 10, 2013
How Young Engineers Find Answers to On-the-Job Problems
About the Author
Sarah Cechowski is the associate digital editor for Control Design and Industrial Networking. Email her at [email protected] or check out her Google+ profile.This is the second edition of our quarterly column about the developing careers of several young engineers. Read the first entry, "Young Professionals Map Careers."

We are confronted by dilemmas every day. Whether it's how to fix a leaky faucet or what ingredients are needed in a new recipe you want to try, the answers are available at your fingertips. Many of us will pick up the phone to call someone we know has the answer, but with the way technology has advanced in the last decade, a common phrase we tell ourselves and others when looking for answers is, "Just Google it."

SEE ALSO: How Automation Professionals Use the Web for Their Jobs

Sam Strickling, academic broad-based research marketing manager for National Instruments, whom you met in my first column, partners with universities, and oversees student design projects at several schools. One challenge he often faces while speaking with a customer about design ideas is the use of certain acronyms when describing industry terms. Strickling can pull out his smart phone immediately to look up the acronym, so he understands what the customer is talking about.

Bill Purcell, mechanical engineer supervisor for Nevco, whom you also met, agrees that the web is critical for solving daily problems at work. As a designer of scoreboards and installations, he often faces the challenge of figuring out the most efficient way to connect scoreboards in different environments when there is poor Internet connection at a venue.

"The Internet is the best resource for a lot of technical problems," Purcell says. "Even on the mechanical side when we're designing our installations, we have to design to certain building codes. On the machine-to-machine (M2M) communications side, the Internet is a vast resource for finding the way other people have done things, to ask questions, and get advice."

Strickling adds, "There are a lot of really good resources that are free or very cheaply available to do any learning." He uses web-based tools such as webinars and YouTube videos, and social communities such as forums, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn professionally — not only when looking for answers, but also for product research.

Strickling uses forums such as Stanford America, TechWorld, Jive and Jove. He doesn't often contribute to them by providing answers to other users' questions, but he likes using them to find solutions to his own problems and for product research.

Purcell finds webinars such as Digi and forums such as and AVRFreaks to be resourceful when researching different technologies for M2M communication. However, when it comes to software for mechanical design, blogs such as SparkFun and Make are the most beneficial when troubleshooting.

"Say you use a piece of open-source software," Purcell says. "Some of the best resources are blogs that people post solutions to certain errors that the manufacturer doesn't have posted on their website."

Similarly to Purcell, CCK Automation's PLC programmer, Martin Copeland, who you met last time, uses forums for troubleshooting software errors. Forums are useful for finding out if certain components work with others, learning about competition, and solving coding issues, he says.

Copeland's job requires a lot of product research when given a new project. He is responsible for designing custom enclosures that reduce the amount of heat produced by variable-frequency drives. Before designing an enclosure, he will first research how much voltage a panel can handle.

"It's usually a lot easier to go to a human and ask them the questions rather than sifting through everything that's on the Internet," Copeland says. "The vendors you normally go through for certain things may not know about the product you're trying to learn more about. It's really kind of mixed. A lot of times I try to go straight to my vendor, but sometimes they don't have all the answers, or sometimes it's simple enough that I can go to the manufacturer's website to research on my own."

Parker Hannifin's electromechanical territory manager, Courtney Benson, a new contributor to this column, says she often turns to the web for certain answers, but her biggest resource for helping her solve a majority of on-the-job problems are her peers at the division.

"If something comes up, whether it's product-based or I'm troubleshooting and an issue comes up, my first thing is to head to Google," Benson says. "I try to do everything I can to find information on my own before I pick up the phone and call, but the knowledge that some of the experienced engineers (and) customer service people have is something you're not going to find on the web." 

As the person responsible for growing sales in her territory, her job requires her to train distributors, as well as grow both the distribution and direct sales channels of the electromechanical business. "My lack of experience is probably still the biggest struggle," Benson says. "Customers look at you as the expert. There's still a big learning curve."

As a new hire right out of college, Tom Pasterik, manager of application engineering for ExOne, also from the March column, says his schooling prepared him enough to be qualified for the professional workforce, but like Benson, he has encountered many obstacles at work because of his lack of experience. "Since we're a rapid manufacturing company, it's about time constraints and workflow — there are so many customers I have to work with since I am the only designer at work," Pasterik says.

When a customer comes to Pasterik with an idea or project, oftentimes they present him with a part that came from a traditional manufacturer that is no longer in business. Pasterik is responsible for "reverse engineering" the part or improving on the design using additive manufacturing. He uses Google for a large portion of his product design research, searching for terms such as stainless steel, stainless steel products, traditional manufacturing, additive manufacturing, 3-D printing capabilities and graphic prototyping. Yet, as a young engineer, he relies heavily on the relationships he has with co-workers to provide him with answers to challenges he knows they have already encountered on the job.

"I have developed a really good team at work," Pasterik says. "A lot of the employees are a lot more experienced, so I definitely rely on the team to help me to get projects completed. I also do use the Internet, catalogs and magazines, whether it is for inspiration or for schematics."