Most people in the field of automation like solving problems and are naturally curious. Even when we get older I like to think that we can still learn something new every day.

As shown in the diagram above, many of the methods traditionally used in school and training are not the best way to learn. Lectures and reading are actually at the bottom of the list! Yet these are the methods most people pay thousands of dollars to engage in with university and tech schools. Even when we attend trade shows like the Automation Fair or other industrial events most of the learning falls into the “traditional/passive” category above. Chris Guillebeau in his book and website “The Art of Non-Conformity” goes so far as saying that the money he spent on formal schooling was largely unnecessary or wasted and that we need to examine our motivation for getting advanced degrees and such. I tend to agree with this generally, however as I mentioned in a previous post without a formal degree there are doors that may never be opened to us in the technical world. This is where reality meets idealism and people need to make their own judgements on how to achieve their goals.

After my book is published I have a still nebulous idea of migrating my small company into being more of a training resource than an implementation resource. I really enjoy the feeling of helping others, at the same time I need to keep learning myself. I agree with the pyramid diagram above that the most effective way to learn is by actually doing the thing you are being taught. Teaching others really just reinforces this by repetition. At the same time by writing a book and speaking at seminars isn’t that just encouraging others to use the methods that are only 5% and 10% effective according to the chart? Kind of a Catch-22.

As I work on my manuscript I learn new things almost daily. One reason this is effective for my own learning is that I am forced to read and understand something and then put it in my own words. I also think that books can serve as a more permanent repository of knowledge than our brains (especially mine). Even if I can’t remember the details of something I have learned I usually remember where I saw it.

So what have I learned this week and how did I learn it?

    I learned what an “involute curve” is. Almost all gear teeth use this shape which is based on the diameter of the gear. How learned: reading and re-writing an article in my book.

    I learned how to configure an SMC valve bank using Boot-P from a different vendor. This involved setting dip switches on the unit , configuring the address, rebooting the power after resetting the dip switches. I have done this in the past but for some reason I don’t think I will forget how this time. Probably have had enough repetition. How learned: I asked someone who had just powered up their machine and then went and did it on my own machine. I could have looked it up (again) in the manufacturer’s documentation but it would have taken longer.

    I learned that the last project I worked on at my previous employer had an AGV’s battery pack blow up and take out the AGV and the neighboring machine. It also took out the Controls Engineer’s computer which was sitting next to it. Fortunately it didn’t hurt anyone, but it cost a lot of money and delayed completion of the project. That probably would have been my computer, I wonder if I would have been sitting there… This is on a system where lots of safeguards have been planned to ensure that there are no sparks or electrical discharges anywhere near the product. Lots of grounding straps and redundancy. I wonder how this event affected the design… How learned: word of mouth.

    I learned that just because someone says that something will happen at a certain time doesn’t make it true. This is actually a topic for a later date in project management and scheduling; we have a hard deadline for when our automated line has to be at the customer’s facility making parts. Everything else in the schedule is predicated on this, which means that a part run on the first section of the line is set up for the first week in September and a full parts run is set for the second week. I haven’t actually learned that this is not going to happen since its not September yet, but having started up, coded and debugged many machines in the past I can see that it is VERY unlikely. I believe that the system will end up shipping unfinished and require lots of work on the factory floor. How learned: an ongoing process of observation.

    I learned not to turn our bird feeder over to dump out the old seed because lots of seeds pour out of the side pockets making a huge mess. How learned: Doing.

    I learned to never, ever, under any circumstances spray paint anything inside the house even if you put up newspaper to prevent overspray and cover things up. Just trust me on this one. How learned: Doing. (OK, I actually learned this one months ago but it is still stuck in my head and I needed something else in this list)

What have you learned recently?


Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.

1 Comment on “Learning

  1. This is a great post and brings up a lot of good points about the different ways people learn and retain new information. Although Automation Fair does include lectures and presentations that fall into a more traditional learning method, Rockwell Automation recognizes that learning-by-doing is extremely valuable for manufacturing professionals. That is why we encourage active learning during Hands On-Labs, Demonstration Workshops and live product/solution demonstrations in the booths.

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