As the world becomes ever more dependent on machines to do our work, the need for experts grows. Already we read about autonomous vehicles driving on the roads. Automated technology is slowly becoming more common in our homes. But it’s industry where the big changes have already happened.
Factories and distribution facilities are increasingly sophisticated control centers. They are exceeding human performance in speed and repeatability in low skilled repetitive roles. For this reason many countries are investing heavily in automation. To achieve this, they need specialist engineers.
There are lots of different types of engineers who work in automation, generally they are working towards one or more of the following:
– Streamlining operations to increase productivity and meet set quality standards
– Reducing the production time or wastage
– Improving the safety of a system to prevent accidents
– Making a system more reliable, though the use of intelligent system design. For example, minimizing the number of moving parts
As an engineer in automation you might not work directly on machine building. Many engineers work in different environments. This can include product development, system design or technical sales. “At Control Techniques we have engineers situated across the globe. Their role is to advise and develop systems for individual customer needs,” said Roland Lee, global recruitment manager at Control Techniques. “They are highly skilled individuals, who develop a deep knowledge of product applications.”
Dr Richard Gibson at Control Techniques is one of those people. He’s a product development engineer, and project manager for next generation servo drives.
“I come from a technical design background. Part of my role as project manager is to discuss possible solutions with my team of engineers. We have both technology specialists and engineers who are involved in delivering a project”, said Richard. “They are extremely creative people, and have lots of ideas. I listen, then I help them to refine their ideas to meet the needs of our existing customers; they are our top priority.”
Richard is a power engineer. His main area of expertise are the power electronics to deliver the energy from the mains supply to the motor. But there are many other elements to consider when creating drives. These include: components, circuit design, mechanical structures, thermal design and motion control to name a few. They all need to be packaged, and at the right cost. It’s Richard’s job as project manager to consider everything.
“You can’t just study to get this knowledge. It requires time to understand the problems, and learn from experience. Automation technology moves quickly, so it’s important to keep up with the changes,” said Richard. “For example knowing what the best available technology is, and how to use it, so that we can deliver the best performance for our customers. But also to ensure our products are flexible for the market needs. It’s about continuous learning.”
“One way to keep up is to use trade magazines to get a good overview of available products. Another interesting option would be to visit trade conferences/exhibitions or read academic journals. You can set yourself fact finding missions. This will help you develop an understanding of a subject area. Speak with product suppliers, and have technical discussions with them to tease out ideas.”
“When I was younger, I got involved in the engineering education scheme at school. We went to a local company and spoke with their engineers. We got to solve a real life problem. This put the theory we’d learned at school into context. And it also reinforced how important maths would be.”
Richard Gibson studied electrical engineering to MEng level at university. It’s the quickest way to achieve Chartered Engineer status, and takes four years full time. This is only one of many possible routes to be an automation engineer. There are many degrees which specialize in different disciplines. These include electrical, mechanical software and combinations of these such as mechatronics. There are also many routes through vocational courses and apprenticeships.
During Richard’s second year of his MEng degree, the university circulated an advert. Control Techniques (CT) were looking for summer workers. “At CT, you quickly get stuck into the job. Being onsite, you learn from experts. They had ways of working which you’d only see by watching someone at the top of their field. By working onsite, what you’ve learned at university suddenly becomes relevant.”
After a successful summer, Control Techniques sponsored Richard for the remaining two years of his degree. They offered him a full time contract after he graduated. Since then, the organization offers scholarship opportunities as part of the E3 academy.
The E3 Academy is a scholarship scheme which equips undergraduates with the skills and experiences they need to find employment. It provides eight weeks paid work placement throughout each year, with a provisional job offer upon completion of the degree. The E3 Academy is open for applications, until the end of April each year. You can find more information at: http://www.e3academy.org.