What You Need to Know…
What do you need to know to make a career in industrial automation? Do you need an advanced degree, or even a Bachelors? What kind of options are there?
A large part of my career has involved teaching technicians and engineers. Even when I wasn’t teaching formal classes, I mentored my own employees and co-workers. There are places where all could have improved their skills, without exception.
I wrote a series of posts on the state of education in the US before the pandemic. I discovered that the despite the emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), overall, students seemed to be actually learning less in technical fields than in previous decades.
I hired an intern about a month ago, and she has affirmed my belief that this is true. I asked her if she had learned such platforms as MS Word and Excel in High School, and she said she had not. Basic typing or “keyboarding” had been taught in middle school, but it was up to students to decide what tools they needed to accomplish homework assignments. Excel (or Google Sheets) especially is important in the industrial automation field.
So what skills are needed to enter the field of industrial automation?
First, basic math and English skills are needed. That’s right, English, even if you are from a non-English speaking country. Why? Because most of the learning resources and schools use English as a common language. With good English comprehension, you can learn a lot of things for free from resources on the internet.
Is attention to detail a skill? I believe so. Unfortunately it is not a skill that is taught in schools. Attention to detail is maybe the most important skill of all; if you don’t use the skills you have accurately, nothing else works properly. The previously listed skills should be enough to put you ahead of most basic job applicants in a manufacturing position.
The next skills would be basic electrical and mechanical knowledge. Do you need to be an electrician or a mechanic? Not necessarily, but you need to understand how electricity works and have a good spatial sense (mechanical aptitude). You also need to know how to use basic tools. These skills along with an entry level position in a plant should allow you to move into a maintenance position.
Your personality can take you a long way. People tend to mentor and help people they like. If you are sullen and disagreeable, people won’t want to be around you. If you are serious, friendly and inquisitive, often people will go out of their way to help you learn.
Is curiosity a skill? Well, maybe it’s more of a trait that is developed. For sure it will be hard to move into the industrial automation field without it. You have to want to know how things work.
You will need to start honing your computer skills after moving into a maintenance role. Whether your interest is in mechanical design or electrical and controls, the next step requires software.
It is very difficult to find jobs in manufacturing plants where you can design machinery or systems. Most machines are purchased from OEMs or machine-building companies. While some large manufacturers build their own equipment, positions at these companies are hard to find. Most of the classes I teach are oriented toward troubleshooting existing machines, rather than designing and programming new ones.
If you are from the US, Canada or Europe, a minimum of a Bachelors degree is required to even interview for a position at a machine builder or systems integrator. If someone from outside of these countries wants to immigrate and interview it is even more restrictive, they will need a Masters degree and probably need to already be in the country where they are applying.
It goes without saying that you need to learn different software platforms to become a programmer or designer. Mechanical and electrical designers need to learn some kind of CAD, AutoCAD, Solidworks, ProE and others. There are free CAD programs available online, they will get you started but generally aren’t used in industry.
Industrial automation programming software includes PLC, DCS, SCADA, HMI software, and even various Java, Python and Microsoft Visual Studio platforms. Knowing multiple platforms takes a while to learn, but it gets easier as you learn more.
Professional software is expensive, and you may not get a chance to use the good stuff until you work for a company that will pay for it, but there are plenty of free or cheap packages out there to practice with.
Of course there are exceptions to getting a formal college degree. A back door way to get into one of these creative fields is to work for a smaller machine shop or systems house. Most of these places are less concerned with the degree. They just want a person who can do the job.
Another way to find these kinds of places and develop skills along the way is to work for a vendor of automation equipment. You may get some training from the equipment manufacturers this way also.
Of the skills and qualifications I listed here, the least important is your degree. Of course that’s what the gatekeepers may use to pre-qualify you for an interview, but in my opinion the best way to move up the ladder is to become the very best at what you do. Work the extra hours, always be learning, and be helpful to those around you. When the opportunity arises, be ready to use your skills to move into a good creative position!