1 May 2005
"Somebody has to own this"
By Ellen Fussell
The new face of the automation engineer.
The automation engineer has transformed a bit due to changes in manufacturers' expectations. With the new identity comes a whole new set of skills today's engineer will need to stay ahead in the automation race. Computer savvy is one new skill, along with the ability to understand the process dynamics they work in, whether a discrete, continuous, or batch type process.
"They have to understand the plant operation to the degree that when they implement automation, they can avoid problems created through too much or not enough aggression, such as when they're applying control across a reactor where there's a lot of interaction between the control functions," said Dick Hill, vice president of manufacturing advisory services at ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass. "They have to know how any changes they make will affect downstream in processes. After the reactor they might need to take into consideration distillation columns," he said. In a discrete world they have to be able to understand changes that might occur in their equipment when automation is embedded.
The new profession needs someone technically capable and business savvy enough to understand the impact on the business, Hill said. "It may be one person at a location that covers several plants or part of the IT department. But there needs to be someone looking after the owner operator's best interest. Somebody has to own this. And that's the automation engineer."
Engineers can't afford to be less than well versed in business. They have to show their value to the company, or "they'll be downsized with everybody else," said Peter Martin, vice president of performance management at Invensys in Foxboro, Mass. "In the past, you could do engineering independent of business methods. Today, engineers better be very aware of how the business people measure the business and actually help them so they can prove their worth to the business."
Today's automation engineer can't specialize in just process control or automation, Martin said. "Downsizing took place in my opinion for two reasons. One, we may have had too many engineers; and two, the financial people and business folks who evaluate how to size out a business apparently couldn't see more economic value coming from engineers than the cost of the engineers."
But here's the real question. Are engineers really not as valuable, or are they as valuable but that value isn't as visible? "I think it's the latter," Martin said. "If you pay an engineer $100,000 to work in a plant, he's probably contributing way more in terms of increased economic benefit than his cost. But the accounting systems don't measure the value coming out of the plant other than monthly or plant wide. If an engineer does something on one process unit to reduce the energy consumption while maintaining the overall production to that unit, the accounting system won't even detect it. If the engineer costs a company $100,000 to be there and created $500,000 of value to fix things in the plant, because that's not detectable in the accounting systems, the conclusion is the engineer didn't create that value."
Changes in automation careers
In earlier days, the people doing the automation really worked on design automation for the end user-companies like DuPont, Dow Chemical, or Ford Motor Company, said Jim Pinto, futurist, writer, and industry consultant. You can find any process in a textbook, he said, whether it's making chemicals, automobiles, tennis balls, or toasters.
"What's wrong with that?" Pinto said. "The only thing different today is some of the knowledge still comes from vendors, such as Emerson and GM. These people are happy to give you the knowledge for nothing because they'll sell you their products. So what's an automation engineer to do?"
ISA's Certified Automation Professional (CAP) program is a way of actually measuring whether the professional you're about to hire is qualified to do the job they've said they can do, Hill said. "There are so many more factors than just whether they can tune a control loop. If you're in pharmaceuticals, you need to understand how the industry is evolving and how the orders for manufacturing get to your plant. Then you need to know how it's produced and shipped to customers as well as how important it is for quality," Hill said.
Someone coming out of college with an education in automation principles probably wouldn't understand the importance the FDA has in how a manufacturer deploys automation. "They might not fully understand it has a tremendous influence on how you design the control, implement it, and document it," Hill said. "That's something you learn by being part of the manufacturing industry. There's an awful lot of on-the-job training that has to happen."
When more business information becomes available on the plant floor, these engineers will need to know how to deal with it, Martin said. "The problem will get worse before it gets better. But that's a good thing because the reality is plants' manufacturing operations are part of the business. In the past, we've been able to slice up specialties in this and that and still make the plants work. But business people don't want their business to run in little pieces but in a holistic way," he said.
The plant floor talent breaks down into maintenance, operations, and engineering. The automation engineer has to understand strategy, accounting, human resource issues, and work process management. "Engineers traditionally haven't been versed in accounting because that's not their job, Martin said. "Accounting is the way the business is measured. Engineers have to know how to take business measures and empower the entire plant floor. The plant exists to support a business, not the other way around," he said, "so engineers will have to start to think that way."
The automation engineer nearly always studied a specialty in school in the past. "I was a chemical engineer, and a lot of engineers still come from these disciplines or the computer science discipline," Hill said. "So, while there are a few universities that offer automation degrees, it's less something that you get a degree in and more something that happens in the process in your career. If you're already interested in the manufacturing side of a company, that's probably one of the first criteria," he said. In the new automation engineering realm, "you understand it's not a quality point you're trying to control, but a business value of the product that you're trying to control, and quality is just one of the aspects."
Martin said engineers should take business courses, which traditional engineering schools don't encourage. "They say, 'No, you're an engineer, you don't have to.' Forget it, you need business courses, strategy, and accounting," Martin said. "I'd get an MBA or a masters in engineering management." And he doesn't really sympathize with established engineers who say they don't have time to go to school again. "There are opportunities to get educated that are much more flexible than they have been," he said. "You don't have to go to Harvard; you can work with flexible programs and get a degree. You might have to just take courses remotely and go on campus for a short period of time. Vanderbilt and other big name schools are offering top-notch education in creative ways. If you've proven your worth as an engineer and the company thinks you're worth it, they should support that."
But just going to school isn't the only answer. The key is innovation. Things are changing fast, and the people who can change with it are what the industry needs, Pinto said. "Five years ago, you looked at a manual. Now, the automation engineer has a personal digital assistant (PDA) to look after the plant, and everything in that manual is now on a PDA," he said.
Can you teach innovation? "Yes," Pinto said. "But you have to get used to the idea that if it works today, it may not work tomorrow. The old adage was, 'If it ain't broke don't fix it.' The new one is, 'If it ain't broke, fix it anyway because it'll be broken tomorrow.' If you can change it, change it."
Tomorrow's engineer should not be comfortable with knowledge that's in a text book, Pinto said. They should be learning all the time. "The only people different are the ones who innovate, who do something that's significant," he said. "We have to teach in school that change is good. You should not expect an annual raise of five or 10 percent or expect to be promoted. The old thing was you got promoted, you went upwards. Now, compensation equals contribution. If you don't contribute, you should expect to go down. What happens if we promote somebody and we can get someone who gets paid less? We lay them off. We have to teach people to not be satisfied with the status quo and look at new technology, to not be satisfied they went to college five years ago."
Pinto said learning is a full-time job. "You can do an MIT course on the Web. If you're 45 or 50, it doesn't matter. If you've been learning all the time, you're updating yourself."