The robots are coming, they say, and are taking over the workplace. And if they don’t, the algorithms will.
All too often in the media the idea of automation is linked to fears for jobs. What these headlines overlook, however, is the potential, indeed the great need, for employment within the automation industry. Robots have to be designed and built before they can take over anything. They have to be sold, installed, operated and maintained.
As much as automation will displace some jobs, it will both require and redefine a vast array of others. Siemens, Europe’s largest industrial manufacturer, while intending this year to reduce the workforce of its Power and Gas Division, at the same time has recorded ‘extraordinary’ growth in its digital operations. Of Swedish-Swiss conglomerate ABB’s many businesses, the one that has grown most this year is robotics.
The world of industrial manufacturing is changing, with careers in automation increasingly integral to it. But what do these careers look like, and how different are they from other, older kinds of engineering work? And what is the best way to get into them?
The term automation signifies a body of processes far larger than a single technology. Complex automated industrial systems are the work not just of different types of engineer but reflect the labour of IT technicians, financial modellers and business process managers. People with very disparate technical backgrounds and qualifications go on to work in the world of automation.
And some contemporary engineering pioneers and mavericks have beginnings very far away from the circuit board. Thorkil Munk-Hansen, Chief Designer at Siemens Gamesa and one of their Inventors of the Year 2017, trained as a carpenter before studying industrial design. David Hanson Jr., the roboticist whose company created the android Sophia, is a Fine Arts graduate.
But mavericks are mavericks. At the hard centre of the interdisciplinary, populous workplace that is industrial automation there can still be found the field of electrical engineering. And whoever works in the industry, in whatever capacity, sooner or later will need an understanding of how electronic and electrical systems function.
For many, the basis of that understanding is laid at degree level. A Bachelor of Engineering degree (BEng) typically lasts for three years and, on top of a grounding in mathematics and engineering principles, progresses through modules in everything from circuits and fields, analogue electronics and telecommunications through to digital system design, software engineering and robotics. A UK university typically asks that applicants for the course have three A Levels (including Maths) or equivalent.
The Master of Engineering degree (MEng) is a more advanced version of the same training. It carries slightly higher entry requirements, lasts four years rather than three, and, unlike the BEng, fulfils the minimum educational requirement to become a Chartered Engineer. (That requirement can also be met by supplementing a BEng with an MSc, something graduates often do part-time after they have started work.)
Despite a recent upturn in the number of engineering and technology degrees being taken, a 2017 Engineering UK report conservatively suggests that there remains an annual shortfall of 20,000 graduates for engineering jobs. This is not good news for the automation industry. Developing technologies and global trends will founder in areas where they cannot be supported by training and education.
Certain manufacturers, in the UK at least, are already aware of having to factor this imbalance into their product design and business practice. Because of the general shortage of electrical engineers, consumers are increasingly being offered user-friendly equipment that is easy to install without help. Or, where engineering support is unavoidable, this is also being offered by the manufacturer as part of a package.
Nevertheless, so hungry is the industry for talent that it is usual for companies to recruit and sponsor people at a young age. A degree in engineering is now rarely undertaken unless it be in combination with some element of work placement with an interested firm. Apart from anything, such placements supplement the limited practical experience academic courses afford.
This education-work combination exists on almost every level. It is possible to leave school at sixteen and get a job as a fitter on a factory floor whilst at the same time being paid to study one day a week for an HSC in mechanical engineering. Undergraduates engaged in full-time learning typically find work placements in the summer holidays, followed by full-time apprenticeships after graduation.
The E3 Academy is a joint enterprise in the UK between three universities and five companies whereby prospective or recently enrolled engineering undergraduates are sponsored with bursaries, university fee contributions and summer training experiences. Scholarships typically feed seamlessly into graduate placement programmes.
These programmes continue the process of exposing the young engineer to temporary projects, introducing them to different company departments, types of work and levels of responsibility. Longevity within a company always leads to longer-term project involvement.
Just as work experience for the engineering student cannot start too early, so continued education for the full-time employee is deemed desirable. The interplay between what is learned in theory and tested in practice is, after all, vital to the forward movement of the industry. Thus, even if automation engineers do not take on Masters degrees or PhDs in their spare time, they profit from attending trade conferences and reading specialist journals.
You don’t have to be Thorkil Munk-Hansen or David Hanson, Jr. to travel a long way in the automation industry. Few engineers end up where they thought they would. No one who trained before the turn of the millennium would have heard of cloud computing; that same engineer might now be working on robot systems whose powerful capability and reduced running costs are entirely due to cloud-based data centres.
By its very nature this business is about innovation, development and change – and as much about creating it as moving with it. Whatever the academic entry level, and whatever the early hands-on experience, it is a passion for the journey that drives the career of the automation engineer.