Automation and controls engineering is one of many fields of specialty in the industrial manufacturing industry. You are most likely here because you are interested in this job title and are looking for more information about what it is and how you can work towards this job title. To get started, let us define what an automation or controls engineer is and does so we can focus on the specifics on what is needed to pursue such an interesting and challenging career.
What is a Automation or controls engineer?
We define an automation or controls engineer as an engineer who is tasked with designing, programming, implementing and improving a manufacturing plant or machine process with the aid of programmable logic controllers, relays or any other form of “control” circuity. An automation or controls engineer has a desire to learn electrical and computer engineering practices and shows natural strength in problem solving skills. On top of the necessary math and science educational background, there is a huge industry demand for engineers with soft skills to aid in interfacing with customers and other employees. Long gone are the days of quiet guys and pocket protectors (sorry nerds!)
What kind of education do I need?
Most companies are looking for a Bachelors of Science (B.S.) in an accredited 4-year program in one of the engineering colleges (Electrical, Computer) with a cumulative GPA of a 3.0 or above. Additionally, companies have been branching out more into Computer Science and Data Science degrees to attempt to capitalize on the new Industry 4.0 trends of Internet of Things (IOT), machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). I write a post on this interesting topic specifically in the future.
Electrical engineering still caries a heavy weight as the core engineering background for new engineers as they are the most prepared to jump right into plant day to day operations as they are exposed the most to electricity and circuity. However, it is worth noting that Computer engineering is becoming much more attractive as PLC processors get more complicated and powerful, opening the doors to newer applications an use cases. It would not be uncommon for a systems control integrator to look for a computer engineer to help implement and execute more complicated control systems while working along somebody like a electrical engineer to do the full electrical design or backbone of the computer system.
On top of your standard 4-year degree mentioned above I would also recommend a fundamental understanding in the following:
- Python and/or C# Programming Language
- Knowledge of basic automation terminology (PLC, HMI, VFD, Sensor, 4..20mA, etc.)
- Microsoft Word
- Microsoft Excel
- Linux or Unix Experience (for core low-level understandings of systems)
- Network and networking infrastructure (I.P. Address, Network Switch, Router, Network Mask, MAC Address, etc.)
- SQL, Stored Procedures and Reporting (not a must but a strong bonus companies like to look for)
What kind of job experience do I need?
This probably one of the hardest questions to quantify as it is 100% dependent on you and your hiring institution. There are two methods of approach to this question in my eyes, and that is if you a new graduate out of college or you have been in the industry previously in ANY capacity as a maintenance personnel, technician, operator or any other industry specific position. In either case, you want to make sure any job experience you do have aligns with the manufacturing work environment and structure as long as allowing you to practice typical skills seen on the plant floor like troubleshooting, evaluation, monitoring and operating.
New graduates out of college
I almost need to start this entire post off with the following sentence, ensure that you are actively participating in a paid or unpaid internship in a related field no later than the start of your junior year in college! This bears repeating because I cannot tell you the countless individuals I have worked with and tried to help get jobs in this field that simply did not put in the time while in college and simply struggled finding jobs after graduation even while carrying a good GPA and skill-set. Please make sure you are actively pursuing an internship in any automation related areas by no later than your junior year. Two years experience out of college will virtually guarantee you a hire directly out of college (usually with the company you are doing your internship with).
Previous industry experience
This is a very gray area in the industrial world. Those with “previous industry experience” can sometimes go unnoticed in the engineering wold and work among engineers and other technical peers sometimes without the necessary degrees or certifications. There is nothing wrong with this at all and is a great way to re-tool as an existing industrial employee but just know there can come a time when your credentials are needed and ultimately are required for the job position. For example, I worked at my first job as a engineer for seven years and never once had to produce any evidence my of degree. When I changed jobs the first thing the new company did was ask for proof of my degree and went as far as having me scan a copy for them to keep on file!
However, back on topic, as somebody with “previous experience” companies are looking for you to know and understand the basic concepts that any engineer would need to understand (electrical theory, programming, problem solving, etc) as well as a familiarity with the typical plant level hardware and software needed to work a typical day as a automation engineer (this could be CAD Experience, programmable logic controller (PLC) Programming experience, etc.) all covered in detail later. Your value you bring to an employer is your familiarity to the plant process and the knowledge you would of learned on the job by necessity.
Where do I apply for automation and controls engineering jobs?
If you are lucky enough to live in a major US city, you likely have a few local “integrators” that have established an engineering headquarters in your immediate area. “Integrators” are companies that generally work independent of a specific manufacturing plant and service a wide range of customers across the country or even globe. Integrators generally serve two groups of offerings: to quote, engineer, design, program, install and commission new or existing processes or to focus on industry service generally with a 24 hour support structure where engineers are for-hire on an as-needed basis. These engineers are well traveled and go to where the work is which can be local, regional or global. This specific service is in HUGE demand due to the flexibility and travel requirements.
A second (or third) avenue for automation and controls engineering is the manufacturing plant approach where you will work on an engineering team at a local manufacturing facility. These engineers are tasked to become “machine owners” and will be in charge of suggesting maintenance, evaluating performance, tweaking performance and the general upkeep and conditioning of the machine or process from a technical perspective. The term “continuous improvement” comes to mind to explain the day-to-day activities of these specific engineers. Although this is a solid path to automation or controls engineering, you can sometimes limit your vertical ability as companies can be difficult to move around in depending on job title, qualification, ability, etc.
What kind of salary should I expect as an Automation or Controls Engineer?
Salary is largely dependent on your location and ability. As a senior automation or controls engineer, you can expect your salary to max out anywhere from $100,000 to $120,000 a year. The average salary according to glassdoor is $79,609 a year (Source) . If you are looking to be on the higher end of salary, you are going to need to strategically move around to get to those next levels of pay. From my experience, you will have a very hard time starting at one salary and ending up where you want to be. From personal experience, to make those pay bumps you will sometimes need to move to a different department or company who is willing to take that next investment. This is especially true for new graduates out of college!
In conclusion these would be the basics to understand when looking to become an automation or controls engineer. Whether you plan to pursue an internship with an integrator or to go work for an industrial manufacturer, you will still need to make sure you have completed the right schooling (or in some cases, have the right experience) to apply for the job you want. The industry itself is always changing and you will have the opportunity to learn daily, so if you are somebody who enjoys electronics, computers and how stuff is made, this is the job for you! Thanks for reading! Please reach out with any specific questions or please comment below!