October 2008

Factory Automation

Fortunes on rise

Automation engineers front and center as manufacturers hike productivity, trim costs

Fast forward

  • 62% feel need to increase output; intensity remains same for 36%
  • 23% of respondents earn between $90,001 and $110,000
  • Most common pay raise: 3%
By Gregory Hale

It is the age old profit making formula: Manufacturers want to produce more product while at the same time reducing costs. Increase those margins by making more, more, more, while costs go down, down, down. Automation at work.

Automation technologies continue to be a force throughout the industry as they jolt manufacturers into the new age of producing product, while at the same time providing the enterprise information that will squeeze out costs and hike profitability.

The numbers seem to back that up as the annual InTech/ISA Salary Survey found the pressure to improve productivity increased this past year, with 62% of respondents saying they needed to increase output, while 36% said they felt the same level of intensity. Believe it or not, 2% said the pressure to increase productivity decreased.

Donald Dunn, an electrical engineer with Aramco Services Co. in Houston, does not really see any more difference now. There is always a push to hike productivity.

"I work in the petroleum industry, and there is no more pressure now than there has been in the past to increase productivity. You do as much as you can do, and then you go home."

Royce LeVerne, director of automation at safety system integrator, R. Stahl in Houston agrees. "An increase in productivity is always the case because (management) is always trying to hit budget."

There is, however, another spin on the productivity question, and it comes from Bill McEachen, associate control system engineer at the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District in Martinez, Calif. He said he does not know about productivity pressure in his area, "but I take a look at the organizational chart and see how many positions are left unfilled."

Cost containment

Meanwhile, showing a slight uptick, the pressure to reduce costs increased for respondents to the tune of 64%, while 34% said the pressure stayed the same, according to the survey.

While reducing or containing costs is important, Dunn said he sees the cost question a bit differently. His company is trying to ramp refinery capabilities, and they need work done as quickly as possible.

"The biggest issue I am seeing is increasing capacity," Dunn said. "As we try to increase capacity, we are doing it on a schedule basis, and that means costs continue to rise to meet the deadlines."

Reducing costs does not seem to be the problem as finding containment.

"We are in a building mode so reducing costs is not the issue," said LeVerne. "But we need to control costs. Our growth goal is to grow from $4 million to $6 million to up to $12 million. So we know costs will go up, but we just need to control them."

While the pressure to reduce costs and increase productivity increased in the new manufacturing paradigm, having experience is the top item for hiring a new staffer.

When asked what is the number one criterion you look for when hiring a new staff person, 55% cited years of experience as the number one factor, and 19% said a college degree is the top reason.

Work-related experience does remain a key factor in automation. Dunn, who has been in the industry for over 20 years, is a perfect example. "I started working at Aramco in 2006 when the person doing my job retired."

Bringing people onboard in the automation environment remains an important move, but when asked if grads are properly prepared for doing automation-related work when they join the workforce, 77% of respondents said no, while 23% said yes.

As one anonymous respondent said in the survey, "Don't worry so much about training automation engineers out of college. A ChemE, an EE, or an ME who has learned and survived their curriculum and its pressures will be fine in any atmosphere. Nobody out of college is going to walk into a plant and automate it, or do anything else for that matter. You take high-quality raw material, and you make something out of it. The same thing the plant does; raw material in one door, finished product out the other."


Experience will come

Dunn agreed engineers coming in fresh from the college campus will not be experts walking in the door.

"Younger engineers are more computer proficient. As far as being technically trained, they are not any different than we were when we came out 20 to 30 years ago.

"The difference," Dunn said, "is most companies cut out training programs, and people needed to go out and train themselves. How do you train yourself when you don't know what you don't know?"

When asked what skills or knowledge new engineers are missing when they join the automation workforce, 16% said safety skills, 14% each said they were lacking business acumen and networking and communication protocols, 13% said enterprise integration skills were not there, while 11% said new engineers were missing the basic engineering skills.

Everyone has to start someplace, and the survey found 49% of respondents had a four-year degree, while 19% had a Masters and 18% had a two-year degree. Vocational training earned 8%, while a Ph.D. had 3%. In addition to education, when asked what certifications or professional licenses do they hold, 62% said they do not have any, 23% said they have some other professional engineer license, 8% said they had an ISA Certified Control Systems Technician certification, 7% said they had a control system engineer license, and 3% said they had a Certified Automation Professional certification.


Time tables

While existing workers complain that new engineers just do not have the experience to tackle a job in the automation environment, 28% or respondents said they have 21-30 years of experience. Meanwhile, 25% had 13-20 years experience, while 15% said they have 31 or more years on the job. The percentages get smaller as there is less experience: 9-12 years had 12%; five to eight years had 9%; three to four had 6%; and two or less years had 5%.

When you look at all the experience out there, you have to look at the Baby Boomer question of when will the institutional knowledge learned over the years ride off into the sunset? According to the survey, 5% of respondents are two years or less away from retirement. Additionally, 7% said they were three to four years away. However, topping the list, 28% said they were 13 to 20 years away from retirement.

With that in mind, manufacturers are getting creative in ways to keep the graybeards on board to mentor younger engineers.

"A lot of boomers are being enticed to stay," Dunn said. "Companies are pretty flexible in retaining the knowledge base and then transferring it to the younger engineers."

Some companies are trying quite a few different methods to retain or find new employees.

"We are doing a lot of recruiting and also have an employee referral program that pays out some pretty nice bonuses," said Ben Francis, consultant with CH2M Hill in Redding, Calif., which designs instrumentation and control systems.

"The company keeps some of the Boomers working part time so they can keep that knowledge with the younger staff," Francis said. "We have people that have worked here for 35 years and some out of school that have worked here for six months."

"I think the bigger thing that is happening is losing that tribal knowledge where that tribal knowledge is not well documented and it is not repeatable," said Jack Bolick, president of Honeywell Process Solutions. "That means you are always looking for the guy that solved the problem to step up to the plate when it raises its ugly head. What we are trying to do is go to computer integrated manufacturing where you take that variability out of the equation."


Enrique Santacana, president and chief executive of ABB Inc. and region manager of ABB North America, looks at the issue from a holistic point of view. "I think as a nation, we have a real issue because we have some of the strongest universities and colleges in the world, but one level down, we are not so strong," he said. "It is a social issue, and it has to have the cooperation of the government, industry, and communities."

When talking about retirement years, the topic of age always comes up: 35% of respondents said they were between 46 and 55 years old; 26% said they were between 36 and 45; 19% said they were 56 and older; 17% said they were between 26 and 35; and 2% said they were 25 and younger.

Also with experience comes salary levels, with 23% of respondents saying they earn between $90,001 and $110,000, 21% said they earn between $70,001 and $90,000, 17% earn between $50,001 and $70,000, 14% earn between $110,001 and $130,000, 7% earn between $130,001 and $150,000; 6% earn between $30,001 and $50,000, 4% earn $30,000 and below and also $150,001 to $170,000; 2% earn from $170,001 to $190,000 and also $210,001 and above, while 1% brings in $190,001 to $210,000.

While on the topic of money, 3% seemed to be the most popular pay raise, as 26% of respondents said that was their magic number. Meanwhile, 17% said 4% was their increase, 13% said 5% was the increase, 9% said 2%, 6% said 6% as their increase, 5% gave 1% or less as their increase, and 4% said they got a 7% increase.

In an effort to touch all regions of the globe, 77% said they worked in the U.S., 8% said Canada, 6% said Asia, 4% said Europe, 3% said Latin America, and 2% said South America.



Gregory Hale is the editor of InTech.  His e-mail is ghale@isa.org.

Retirement is hanging out by the watercooler

The era of going out and playing golf every day of the week and traveling around the world after retirement seem to be going the way of the fax machine. Yes, it is still there, but not as many people use it.

That is the idea behind the InTech/ISA Salary Survey question asking: "Do you plan to work in a part-time or in a consulting capacity after retirement?" The answers came back with a resounding most likely, with 46% saying yes, 43% saying they were not sure, and 11% saying no, they have had enough.

Donald Dunn, an electrical engineer with Aramco Services Co. in Houston said he is planning on retiring in 15 years when he hits 60. "But if I still enjoy the job, I may continue on."

"I plan to retire in about 10 years when I am 55," said Royce LeVerne, director of automation at safety system integrator, R. Stahl in Houston. "It will depend on how I feel at the time, but my tendency will be to move completely away from (the industry).

Bill McEachen, associate control system engineer at the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District in Martinez, Calif., agrees. He said he is about eight years away from retirement and he has "no thoughts of reworking things to go part time."

Ben Francis, consultant with CH2M Hill in Redding, Calif., summed it up for most when he said: 'If I could afford to retire, I would in 13 years, but I don't see that happening so I will keep going until I am 70 in about 18 years. I use an 85-year-old I used to work with as my model. He keeps working part time, and that keeps him going."

-Gregory Hale