So, You Want to Be an Industrial Automation Engineer

Are you considering or aspiring to a career as an Industrial Automation Engineer or Controls Engineer?  Awesome choice.  Keep reading for a glimpse of what it’s like.

 A sample of ladder logic, a PLC programming language that uses electrical symbols on "ladder rungs."
“Ladder logic,” a common PLC programming language.  PLC’s are microprocessors (computers) that are used to control manufacturing equipment.  Image credit.

 

Entry Requirements

For a bit of background, I work for Ford Motor Company as an Automation Engineer (formally, my job title is Engineering Specialist, Controls).  My Bachelor’s is actually in Information Technology, with a concentration in Software Development, but I have industry experience that helped me to get in to my current job.  Much of my job focus is on developing and debugging Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) logic and robot programs, and so the programming techniques and algorithmic thinking I learned in school are helpful, along with the networking classes – virtually all equipment at the plant where I work is on an Ethernet/IP network.

With that being said, if you’re interesting in becoming an Automation Engineer, typical Bachelor’s degrees to pursue might include Electrical Engineering, Industrial Automation, or Mechatronics.  A Bachelor’s in a related field of study is often cited by employers as a minimum requirement, but of course hiring requirements are what the employer would like in the ideal case; there’s likely some wiggle room if you have the skills to do the job.  Many people become Controls Engineers after learning to program and debug PLC’s while working for several years as a technician of one form or another.

Many employers list experience requirements when posting a job offering for Automation or Controls Engineers.  If you are having trouble or are worried about moving directly into a Controls position out of school, it may be helpful to first build some industry experience as an Industrial Electrician or Service Technician with a manufacturer or integrator.  There are also PLC training courses out there which can be very valuable in terms of gaining a foundation in PLC programming, and could possibly help you to get a foot in the door if you do not have experience.  In my perception, however, employers would prefer to see one or more years of industry experience working with PLC’s.

As a side note, I’m using the terms Controls, Controls Engineer, Automation Engineer, and Industrial Automation Engineer interchangeably.  When looking for jobs, the only thing to be careful of is that the title “Automation Engineer” is now also used in the Software Testing field.  Generally, if you see the terms “PLC,” “robot,” or “CNC” mentioned in the job listing, it is an Industrial Automation position and not a Software Test Automation position.

 

What Does an Automation Engineer Do Every Day?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on the company for which you work and your place in the hierarchy; I can only relate my own experience and that of the other Automation Engineers that I work with.  I’d love to hear any comments from other engineers as to how their responsibilities differ from my own, and would be happy to add your commentary to this post.

My two primary job functions are breakdown response and Continuous Improvement.

 

Responding to Breakdowns

A plume of white smoke.
With electronics, you’re supposed to try to keep the smoke inside the equipment. If you see smoke coming out of a circuit board, that’s usually a bad sign.

 

The name of the game in industrial automation is production – a lot of production.  Companies make money by building as many parts as possible during their employees’ regularly-scheduled work day.  Overtime hurts profits.  Downtime hurts profits. Manufacturing companies make money when the line is running and when it’s running fast.  Jobs Per Hour, or “JPH”, is a key indicator of the health of a factory.  While there is an upper limit to how quickly any given process can occur, as a general rule, the more units you can build in the allotted time (hence, “Jobs Per Hour”), the better.

In such a fast-paced environment, and with equipment moving back and forth dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times per hour, things break!  Cables fail, bearings wear out, sensors wiggle out of alignment; Murphy’s Law is active, big time.  When things break, factories have a Maintenance Department that is responsible for figuring out what’s wrong and fixing it – as quickly as possible.

Where I work, the Controls Engineer’s role on breakdowns is somewhere between supervision and high-tier tech support.  As a salaried employee, the Controls Engineer is responsible to the company for ensuring that the equipment gets back up and running as quickly as possible.  Sometimes, this means fixing the problem at hand, and sometimes, it means finding a creative way to work around the problem.  For this responsibility, having a cool head and the ability to quickly become knowledgeable about the equipment with which you’re working are very valuable skills, as you may need to lead and direct maintenance personnel.

I wouldn’t describe myself as an introvert, but I’m not the most extroverted person in the world, either; to succeed in breakdown response, I strive to become as knowledgeable as I can about as many systems as I can so that I will know what needs to be done to fix the problem.

An animation of Johnny Five, a fictional robot, reading a book extremely quickly.
INPUT. MORE INPUT.  Image credit.

 

It’s also the engineer’s job to follow up after breakdowns and help the organization to become more knowledgeable.  At times, you may be working with equipment that isn’t commonly used or that does not commonly break, and there may not be anyone around who is deeply knowledgeable.  In these cases, the Automation Engineer is often asked to follow up on the problem, contacting the equipment’s manufacturer, if necessary, and providing technical write-ups and how-to’s to the factory’s maintenance personnel.  Some skill in technical writing can come in handy here.

Another possibility is that you will have to perform a temporary repair to get the line going, but that you will need to come back during scheduled maintenance time to finish the job.  In any case where follow-up is needed, solid organizational skills will help to ensure that you are resolving important issues.

 

While breakdowns have the potential to be stressful, they are also sometimes the best teachers – nothing makes being knowledgeable about a piece of equipment more relevant than when it brings the factory to a halt and no one seems to know how to fix it.

No one begins a career in Controls knowing everything.  Getting involved with and following up on the breakdowns will greatly sharpen your skills and knowledge as a Controls Engineer.

 

Continuous Improvement

Breakdowns are emergent events (they just happen all of a sudden), and when the factory stops making parts, it’s “all hands on deck” to get things moving again.  While breakdowns are the “event-driven” part of the job, my “default state” is working on Continuous Improvement projects.

Continuous Improvement is exactly what it sounds like; it is a practice and mindset of boosting production capabilities by continually working to improve safety, quality, cost, JPH, MTBF, MTTR*, or sometimes just making things easier for the people who supply and repair the automation lines.  Factories come in all shapes and sizes, but for me at Ford’s Super Duty Body shop, the factory is enormous, consisting of dozens of lines of automation just on my side of the shop, with each unit travelling more than a mile in its journey to become a truck.  Continuous Improvement is all of the little changes and improvements made throughout the life of the automation equipment that contribute to a gradual betterment of production, repair, and ease of use throughout the shop.

*JPH, MTBF, and MTTR are metrics used to summarize the productivity of equipment in an automated factory.  JPH, or “Jobs Per Hour,” is simply how many units you are building per hour.  As a general rule, the more, the better!  Mean Time Between Failure is how often, on average, you are able to use a piece of equipment before it breaks down, and Mean Time To Repair is how long, on average, it takes you to get the equipment back up and running when it does break.
A picture of a Ford Super Duty body; just the metal cab, unpainted with no trim installed.
This is what I build; the world’s first aluminum heavy-duty pickup.

 

Continuous Improvement is what I find most rewarding, as the task is essentially this:

  • Identify a problem that, if fixed, would improve production or repair in some way
  • Come up with a way that you think you can fix it
  • Research and purchase the equipment, components, sensors, etc. that you would need to make it happen
  • Wait for the parts to come in and then work with other people in the factory to implement your solution
  • Stand back and marvel at the results!

 

It’s pretty cool to know that you’ve personally organized improvements that subtly alter the manufacturing process for every Super Duty built in America.  Projects come in all shapes and sizes.. I’ve worked on projects that took only a few hours, such as adding lights to show operators when to load parts, and I’ve worked improvements that took coordinated efforts during scheduled downtime over weeks, including a modernization project (upgrading the capabilities of older equipment by adding modern processors and interfaces).  As I mention above, Continuous Improvement is the part of the job that I love, as I get to design and implement solutions, and then see those solutions come to life in front of me.

At the time of this writing, I have a project active to automate the shutdown of my side of the shop at the end of each shift – a task that is currently handled manually on each automation line by Production Supervisors.  If everything goes my way, I’ll be taking a process that currently involves about two dozen people throughout the shop placing holds on their lines at certain times, and consolidating the same functionality into a single interface on which the Production Manager can stop the lines however they like for the next shift.

For this project, I will develop new PLC logic, create new PanelView screens, and work with other smart, engaged people to implement and debug the solution until it’s working flawlessly.  For someone like me, who loves to solve puzzles and learn how things work, this part of the job is what I was made for.

An example Human-Machine Interface, of the type that might be found in an industrial factory. This particular screen shows the status of two pumps overlaid on top of a schematic of the overall system.
“PanelView” is a brand name for an “HMI,” or Human-Machine Interface. HMI’s, in this context, are rugged, programmable touch-screen displays found throughout a factory. You don’t want people to have to go to the controller logic every time there’s an issue; HMI’s provide a GUI with which operators and maintenance personnel can control the equipment.

 

Success in executing Continuous Improvement will require many of the same skills that you will need when responding to breakdowns, including the ability to track your projects and purchases and to share your vision with others and organize their efforts in completing the work.  Additionally, you may need to justify your purchases to your manager, so you’ll need good judgment for what will help the shop and can be done affordably, along with the ability to defend your ideas and accept rejection gracefully, when necessary.

When you’re doing development (writing new logic or developing new screens), it will often be in an offline, scheduled downtime type situation, which means you have room to breathe and figure out how to make things work the way you need them to work.  You need to be able to approach things somewhat scientifically and strive to understand the behavior of the systems that you’re working with to the greatest extent possible, given your available time, so that you can develop a solution that will function as you expect.

As a final note, Continuous Improvement is another excellent opportunity to acquire new and hone existing skills, as you won’t typically be under the pressure of the breakdown environment.  You have some time to play around with new equipment or software and gain experience and skills that you can bring to future projects – and to call upon at future breakdowns.

 

Pros and Cons of Being an Automation Engineer

While I love my job, every position has some good and some bad.  I want to give you an honest sense of what I see as the pros and cons of a career in Industrial Automation.

 

Pros:

  • Technically Challenging I love learning and striving for mastery of new systems.  If you’re like me, it’s awesome to be surrounded every day by a fortress of high-tech equipment.  And it’s your job to become the expert!
  • Pride My grandfather turned 100 the year that I was hired into my current job.  I was incredibly proud to tell him that I would be working as an Automation Engineer with Ford Motor Company.
  • Pay Many Controls positions should easily reach six figures, particularly if a lot of travel and overtime are involved.
  • Benefits If you’re hiring into a position as an Automation Engineer, chances are it’s with an established company.  Decent insurance and vacation packages are standard.
  • Being a Part of Something – My work in automation has taken me to three countries (my short time in Germany was awesome) and to major facilities including Ford and Tesla plants.  Become a skilled Controls Engineer, and you could work for some of the biggest, most high-tech manufacturers on Earth.

 

Cons:

  • Long Hours – I have worked 8’s, 10’s, and 12’s for Ford.  I work 12-hour shifts on my current schedule, and have worked 12’s throughout most of my other experience in the industry.
  • Rotating Shifts – Depending on the company and its seniority policies, you could be stuck periodically working a shift that you hate (night shift, weekends, etc.) – or for extended periods until someone leaves another position.
  • Travel – Depending on the position, extensive travel may be required, which can be stressful for families.  Perhaps travel could be viewed as a pro depending on your personal situation.
  • Labor Relations – Speaking as a salaried employee in a union shop, your success may hinge on your ability to elicit the best out of others.  If your shop operates under a union contract, you might also need to tread carefully in regards to what work you can and cannot perform on operational equipment.
  • Stress – When the line is down, the company is losing money – people will be looking to you to get everything back up and running.

 

Let me offer another point of view in regards to my schedule: while the 12’s are long days, consider that the average person working a nine-to-five job works 10 days out of every 14 – they work M-F, then off two days, then M-F, then off two.

Because I work 12’s, I only work 7 days out of every 14.  I would try to explain my schedule, but it’s much easier to just show you.  I work the green days on this calendar:

A calendar showing the days that I work.
I told you it’s a weird schedule.

 

Now, this looks a little bit strange and horrible at first, but now consider:

  • I have 4 days off in a row every other week.
  • Every other week, I only have a 2-day work week.
  • If I take 2 days of vacation on my 2-day work week, I am off of work for 9 days.

 

I’ve only ever seen this schedule implemented at Ford, but my point in mentioning this is that in manufacturing, there may be multiple options for you as far as what shift you work.  You may be able to find something that really works well for your family and lifestyle.

 

Let’s Talk Turkey

So, what can you expect in terms of salary as an Industrial Automation Engineer?  Controls Engineering (again, I’m using the terms “controls” and “industrial automation” interchangeably) is a demanding field requiring solid technical, organizational, and people skills.  Automation Engineers can expect to earn a decent income.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have a listing for “Industrial Automation Engineer,” “Controls Engineer,” or “Automation Engineer.”  Here are the average salaries listed on various sites (at the time of writing, 17 Mar 2019) for “Controls Engineer” or “Electrical Controls Engineer”:

Average Controls Engineer Salaries

SiteAverage Salary
Glassdoor$80,961
Indeed$83,083
Payscale.com$74,788
ZipRecruiter$81,474
ControlEng.com$96,045
Salary.com (Engineer I)$69,769
Salary.com (Engineer II)$87,504
Salary.com (Engineer III)$105,147

 

Is a Controls Job Right for You?

To me, the biggest question you have to ask yourself is whether you like solving problems and learning about new equipment.  If your interests include electronics and programming, and you’re the type of person who has to read and tinker until you understand what you’re doing, then you would do well as an Automation Engineer.  You can probably fake it till you make it if you’re in it for the money, but the engineers I know who are very successful are people who gobble up as much knowledge as they can at every turn, and are regarded as world-class experts in their specialties.

 

Are you currently applying for a position as an Automation Engineer?  Are you still in college, considering possible career paths for your future?  Let me know where you’re at in the comments below – I’d be happy to provide any insight that I can, and I’d love to hear from other engineers in regards to their own experiences.

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Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

7 thoughts on “So, You Want to Be an Industrial Automation Engineer”

  1. Hello,

    I am about to start my senior year of an electrical engineering degree and have had two co-ops/internships exposing me to PLCs and HMIs. I think I want to become an Industrial Automation Engineer but I am torn because I believe it would be valuable to take power systems related classes to be more well rounded than just taking controls and embedded systems classes. Do you have any advice on what direction would suit me best in your experience?

    Please feel free to email me!

    1. Hi Daniel 🙂 Thanks for the great question.

      I suppose it depends on your interests and what type of work you would like to be your focus. There may be a number of engineering and supervisory positions at a given company, and the responsibilities of each position may blur together to some extent.

      For example, a Facilities Engineer may work to plan, implement, and repair electrical, pneumatic, and other support systems to provide a plant’s infrastructure. In this regard, I mean that a Facilities Engineer would be likely to be responsible for implementing a new plant air system or a new substation to provide electrical supply for an automation line that is being built. A Facilities Engineer may not do very much work on the PLC, but would need to have a robust understanding of electrical systems across a wide range of voltages to perform his or her job. Having some understanding of PLC programming would be of benefit to the Facilities Engineer, but PLC programming is not likely to be their #1 focus. (At least where I work).

      As an Automation Engineer, I typically plan, implement, and repair automation solutions; that may include modifying existing PLC or robot programming, developing entirely new logic for the PLC or robot, or adding physical assets such as new enclosures, conveyance, robotics, sensors, etc. and writing and debugging the logic to support the new equipment.

      Having some knowledge of power systems certainly helps, and for some tasks, it’s crucial, but electrical design is not the #1 focus of my position.

      To boil down a more concrete answer for you, if you believe that your primary interest is in PLC programming and the development of automation solutions (such as implementing or improving robot and PLC programming, sensor systems, conveyance, actuated motion, etc.), I would want to leave college with a strong familiarity with writing ladder logic on a recognized PLC platform. If you feel that you are already strong in that department, I’d say that taking some courses to broaden your electrical knowledge would be beneficial. If you end up working with Industrial Electricians, you won’t want to come across as though you have no electrical knowledge at all. Further, if you end up working in a large plant, knowledge of substation and other high voltage distribution may be very valuable.

      I hope this is helpful input for you, and this is just my humble suggestion from my own limited experience. 🙂 Do you have PLC training equipment at your school where you can write and test your own ladder logic?

  2. Hello,
    I recently graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Mechatronics Engineering and I’m thinking of a career in Industrial Automation. Do you have any advice?
    Also, I was thinking of making preparations to get a Master’s degree in Industrial Automation in a university in Canada but I couldn’t find any. I don’t know if you know one or know another alternative. Thank you.

    1. Hi Joshua,

      What type of work interests you? Are you hoping to work for a large company doing PLC programming and debugging? Are you hoping to get into management?

      Let me know and I’ll give you my take.

  3. Long story but making a late career change. I have worked in IT for the past 20 years and before that I was card carrying journeyman electrician working various jobs in the industrial sector for 10 years. I wanted to get into industrial controls years ago but the doors did not open and IT did so went that direction. I do infrastructure support; servers, virtual servers, various enterprise level software but not programming like .Net or SQL. Those disciplines are in other departments. Great skills but most really do not relate to PLC programming directly.

    I know what to study as far as brands and software to learn PLC’s. My question is how do I narrow my focus at the beginning of this transition and learn enough to get hired as a low level PLC field/plant technician. My concern is trying to learn to many different things at one time. Learning all of Rockwell, Omron, Siemens, GE, and other brands, etc.; would be a pretty tall order.

    Do I go on in on one brand and learn all their product lines like Rockwell, Siemens, or something else. If so which line would you choose.

    As far as programming languages which would you learn after ladder logic. Function block, structured text, or something else. Not looking to get into robotics right out of that gate I assume that would negate perl.

    After being out of the industrial sector for 20 years I need to retrench myself in the electromechanical side of the house since my IT skills are current. I am approaching this from a field tech perspective as I think being more of a on site implementer of the technology will be more enjoyable than just sitting behind a desk all day.
    Thanks,
    Justin Morris

    1. Hi Justin,

      It can be tough to get in the door if you don’t have past PLC experience, but I think you have some other great experience that you can leverage if you can at least get an interview.

      Of course, if companies are hiring for a PLC programming position, they hope to get PLC programmers, but as I’m sure you’re well aware, many job posting requirements are “wishlist” items on the part of the hiring company, and a manager may be willing to take a chance on someone about whom they have a good feeling.

      I agree that it’d be a tall order to try to learn multiple platforms simultaneously. I started with some PLC trainers I found online and was able to talk my way into an interview with that knowledge, technician-level debugging experience in the automation field, and some classes I was taking towards my own IT degree that included Robot Programming and Algorithm Analysis.

      I’d suggest Rockwell, but Siemens and Omron are also popular platforms; one idea might be to look at job listings for the types of companies for which you’d like to work and see what experience they’re seeking.

      I would suggest at least a basic familiarity with Function Block, but ladder logic is your go-to; I haven’t worked anywhere that used Structured Text. I would again recommend checking job listings to see what employers are asking for.

      I’d say some good news is that your knowledge of IP networks will surely be of use to you. Virtually everything in the factory in which I work is Ethernet/IP (a CIP protocol that uses IP networks), and so a fair chunk of the troubleshooting I do is network troubleshooting.

      I think your electrician’s license will also be a terrific bargaining chip at the interview table.

      What kind of companies were you hoping to work for?

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