What is a PLC?

If you’re considering a career in Industrial Automation, you are probably starting to hear a lot about PLC’s. If you haven’t worked with PLC’s before, they might seem a bit mysterious; you might be wondering what a PLC is, exactly. Let’s shed some light on the topic for you below.

What exactly is a PLC? A PLC, or Programmable Logic Controller, is a computer that is used for processing inputs and setting outputs. When I say “computer” in this context, I don’t mean what we typically think of when someone says “computer” – although a PC can function as a PLC with the right software.

A PLC is (typically) a computer in the more general sense – it is a microprocessor that is connected either directly or via an industrial network to some inputs and outputs, and it is programmed to evaluate the inputs and set the outputs in such a way that it facilitates the execution of some process. In other words, it is a processor, similar to the one in your computer, that adheres on a very basic level to the “IPO Model“: it accepts inputs, performs processing, and sets outputs.

Huh?

Try to think of it this way – a factory is, in a sense, a giant machine that takes in a lot of parts and turns those parts into some product or family of products. Within the factory, there are some number of automated production lines, with each line performing some process on the parts.

On some lines, robots may move parts around so that other robots can weld them together. Some lines may have stations where operators use special equipment to install fasteners in each part before it moves to the next station. Some lines may simply convey parts to another area of the facility. In any of these cases, think of individual automation lines as large machines themselves; they perform some custom function within the factory to contribute to the assembly of the final product. Generally, they turn some combination of parts into a larger sub-assembly.

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PLC’s run the show

PLC’s are the brains of these machines, much like your car’s ECM is its brain. In fact, in many regards, an ECM is to a car as a PLC is to an automation line in a factory – an ECM is, effectively, a PLC for your car.

  • An ECM accepts inputs from the vehicle, such as:
    • Crankshaft position
    • Oxygen sensor feedback
    • Intake airflow
  • The ECM then performs calculations using the input data, to provide appropriate outputs:
    • Injector duty cycle
    • Throttle control
    • Valve control
An Engine Control Module, or ECM, from a Volvo.
Vroom, vroom. Image credit.

I guess the list above is most relatable if you have a bit of automotive knowledge. Here’s another comparison that might be more broadly intuitive:

  • A home automation hub accepts inputs from sensors in your home, such as:
    • Motion sensors
    • Smart buttons
    • Voice input
  • The home automation hub processes those inputs in accordance with how you have it set up, and then provides appropriate outputs:
    • Turning lights on and off
    • Playing music
    • Closing the garage door

While both comparisons are reasonable, there is one manner in which both examples are significantly different from PLC’s:

ECM’s and home automation hubs come pre-programmed from the manufacturer. Their programming is pre-determined and, while there may be features that you can set up or configure at the user level, the code that the processors are executing is generally not editable.

PLC’s, on the other hand, are blank slates – they are putty in your hands, so to speak, for you to program however you need, in order to control your automated processes.

What do you need to have to be able to program a PLC?

In order for a PLC to do the incredible job of controlling equipment, you must provide it with the programming instructions, or “logic”, that brings your process to life. As a broad statement, you will need the following to connect to and program a PLC:

  • The PLC, with its power supply and any necessary accessories
  • A PC or programming terminal with the PLC vendor’s software
  • A means of communication between the terminal and PLC

Varieties of PLC’s

PLC’s come in all shapes and flavors, from this relatively affordable Electrodepot PLC to this Siemens PLC that can cost a few thousand dollars – which is the refurbished price, by the way. This Siemens NCU is just one example of a high-end PLC – as far as pricing for the cream of the crop, a few thousand isn’t even the upper bound.

There are many, many categories in which PLC’s can differ, but here are some noteworthy parameters:

  • Physical type (stand-alone, modular, or rack-mounted)
    • What are the PLC’s capabilities for expansion?
    • What types of accessories are available in this PLC’s product family?
  • Number of inputs and outputs accepted
  • Protocols supported
    • Does the PLC only accept “discrete” (wired) I/O?
    • Does the PLC support advanced fieldbus protocols like DeviceNet, Profibus, or Ethernet/IP?

PLC Software

Vendor-specific software is an important consideration when choosing a PLC platform, if for no other reason than differences in price:

  • Some vendors include their PLC software at no additional cost
  • Allen Bradley/Rockwell Automation PLC’s, on the other hand, require licensing to use their software – to the tune of $1,000’s for an annual license
An example of ladder logic depicted within RSLogix 5000, PLC programming software for Rockwell Automation equipment.
Rockwell Automation’s RSLogix 5000

Communicating with the PLC

Just as there are many different types of PLC’s, communicating with the PLC can mean many different things depending on what PLC you’re using:

  • Some PLC’s have programming ports that you can hook up to via a USB cable
  • Some require proprietary (read: expensive) programming cords that are vendor-specific
  • Many modern PLC’s can be programmed via an industrial network; like your router at home, you can connect to the PLC over Ethernet cabling.

What language is used for PLC programming?

Trick question? There are multiple languages that are used for PLC programming, but the most common is “ladder logic”, the technical nomenclature for which is actually “Ladder Diagram”. Two other common PLC programming methods are Function Block (or Function Block Diagram) and Structured Text.

Ladder Logic

Shown in the image above), ladder logic is the most common PLC programming method. Ladder logic is highly visual, and shows the truth of each instruction via visual indicators on the programming interface. Once you learn the meaning of a small group of instructions, you’ll be able to start reading and understanding simple bits of ladder logic.

The “ladder” in ladder logic comes from the appearance of the visual interface. Reminiscent of relay systems, ladder logic shows “energized” vertical bars on the left and right side of the screen, with each line of logic represented as a literal horizontal line – or “rung” – extending between the two vertical bars. Multiple “rungs” on the screen are visually similar to a ladder, hence the name.

Despite the high-level, visually simple nature of ladder logic, modern interfaces are extremely powerful and permit essentially any function of the PLC to be leveraged.

An example of ladder logic shown in RSLogix 5000, PLC programming software for Rockwell Automation PLC's.
Ladder logic. Instructions that are true are highlighted green. If enough true instructions on a rung form a path from the left of the screen to the right, the output on the right side of the rung will be turned on by the PLC.

Function Block Diagram

Function Block Diagram, or Function Block, is another visually representative programming interface. With function block, instructions are laid out like landmarks on a map, with inputs and outputs from each instruction branching out like roads to connect to other instructions. Function block can help to visualize a process and its inputs and outputs.

Many of the basic building blocks of ladder logic are available when using function block. These basic functions include comparative operators (equal to, greater than, etc.), counters (increment or decrement a count whenever X occurs), timers, and many more.

Like many ladder logic interfaces, you can develop your own instructions in function block. Creating custom functions allows you to reuse logic when applicable to multiple devices or programming contexts.

An example of Function Block logic.
A small example of Function Block. Image Credit.

Structured Text

A third method of PLC programming is Structured Text. For those familiar with computer programming, structured text will seem very familiar. Similar to high-level programming languages such as BASIC, structured text allows the user to write code to control the PLC.

In the PLC world, it’s important to consider how much trouble it will be for other people to deal with your logic when something isn’t working. Because structured text is less visual than either ladder logic or function block, it may not be as readily accessible to technicians who don’t have experience with the type of computer programming of which structured text is reminiscent.

No logic is immune from future debug when the equipment fails. As such, you want your PLC programming to be easy for others to read and understand. For this reason, I prefer a more visual interface than that offered by structured text, if only to make my logic accessible to a larger portion of the people who might have to debug it.

How can I learn more about PLC’s?

Three ideas come to mind for how you can start learning more about PLC programming:

  1. Attend formal training for PLC programming
    • Colleges offer degree programs such as Industrial Automation and Mechatronics that provide formal training in PLC programming
    • Certain skilled trades apprenticeships (including many electrician apprenticeships) will also require formal study of PLC programming
  2. Find PLC programmers in your network, on LinkedIn, or in other forums who may be willing to tell you a bit about the industry and what to expect
  3. Buy your own PLC and start experimenting to build your skills
    1. Get yourself an inexpensive Arduino starter kit and start building projects that will help you understand the Input, Process, Output Model
      • Arduino is not technically considered a PLC, but, basically, it’s an entry-level PLC
      • One drawback with Arduino is that you won’t be using ladder logic; it’s programmed with C
      • Many of the other experiences with Arduino will be identical or directly analogous to PLC programming
        • You will set up inputs such as sensors and switches
        • You will write logic that will handle or take action based on the inputs
        • Your logic will set outputs to turn on lights, activate motors, etc.
      • Another nice thing about this kit is that it comes with a slew of sensors, lights, resistors, etc., and a project guide
    2. If you have the money, fork over the dough for something like the Electro Depot or EZRack PLC starter kits
      • These kits will provide a very realistic experience, using their vendor-specific software to program in ladder logic
      • Both of these kits have simulation functions, allowing you to experiment with your logic without needing a ton of extra equipment
An Arduino Uno, a programmable controller used for prototyping and learning more about programming controls.
(aftermarket) Arduino Uno

Tell Us About It

We hope the information above will help you in understanding some of the basics regarding PLC’s. Where are you at in your own journey? Are you considering a career in industrial automation or specifically as a PLC programmer? Let us know in the comments.

What Is An Automated Systems Integrator?

If you’ve become involved in the world of industrial automation, you may have heard the terms “integrator,” “automation integrator,” or “automated systems integrator.” The term “systems integrator” exists in both the fields of industrial automation and information systems. There are some blurred lines between those fields, as both involve networking, computers, and programming. In this article, we’ll go over the concept of automated systems integration within the fields of industrial automation and manufacturing.

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What Is An Automation Integrator?

Let’s say you’ve just opened a new business. You want to manufacture pencils.

Several colored pencils.

Your company has a solid business plan, funding, a building, your management team, and employees. You know the colors that you want to manufacture and even how you want to market your products. There’s just one little problem… You don’t know anything about how to actually manufacture pencils. That is where a systems integrator comes in.

An integrator is a company that specializes in bringing systems, equipment, and machinery together to create a manufacturing solution. Thus, an integrator “integrates” whatever types of equipment and controls are required to turn separate machines into an assembly line (or other automated solution). The machines that are integrated may or may not be designed to work together easily. To do the job, the integrator must overcome any technical challenges to build a complete solution.

In this sense, an integrator transforms unrelated machinery and electronics into a factory. You can think of a factory as a sort of monstrous Rube Goldberg machine that converts raw materials into marketable products.

A view of the Frame line in the Tesla Model S factory. Many robots can be seen working on or prepared to work on the frame of the vehicle as it travels down a conveyor system in the center of the automation line. It's likely that Tesla designed this assembly line and then commissioned an automated systems integrator to purchase, setup, and program the manufacturing equipment.
The Tesla Model S Framer

What Kinds of Equipment Does An Automated Systems Integrator Have to Bring Together?

Consider everything going on in the image above (view full size here).

Conveyor Systems

Conveyor Beds

The red and grey assemblies in the center of the image are “conveyor beds.” Conveyors are custom-built fixtures that transport units to each “station” on the assembly line. Integrators fabricate the frames of the conveyor beds from stock steel. Industrial motors and roller systems built into the conveyor do the job of getting the units to physically move down the line.

This is just one example of a conveyance system. Conveyance comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on what is being manufactured. The conveyor beds shown above likely weigh around a ton. At the other end of the spectrum, you have smaller components like circuit boards. Conveyor systems of this size weigh only a few pounds.

Pallets

The production units themselves ride through the conveyor system on “pallets.” Like a conveyor bed, a pallet is custom-built to hold and carry each unit down the line. Pallets ride through the automation, passing from conveyor bed to conveyor bed.

Additionally, pallets are built to precise tolerances. When a unit arrives in a station, the robots will need to do their work in as close to the exact same physical location on the unit each time. For this reason, pallets must all be almost exactly the same, so that each unit will sit in a very specific position at each station.

Pallets hold each unit in place with carefully sized pins, or by other mechanical means. This helps to ensure proper positioning. In industrial automation, “repeatability” is the name of the game. Repeatability is the idea that, in automation, the same exact thing should happen in the same exact place every time.

Systems Integrator Roles

What is an automated systems integrator responsible for in regards to conveyance? Integrators will likely build, position, level, and program the conveyor systems. Systems integrators must take great care in many details to ensure that the conveyors will run smoothly. As examples, beds must be precisely assembled and leveled, and many parameters must be programmed into each motor and drive system.

Robotics

You can see many robots in the image above. Each robot is ready to go in and work on the next vehicle.

How does each robot know where to go to do its job? Integrators must carefully plan, teach, and test motion for each robot. Also, each robot must be programmed to control and receive feedback from its End Of Arm Tool, or “EOAT”.

The robot is just a means of moving the EOAT to where it needs to be. What is an EOAT? The EOAT is what actually gets the work done in a robotic factory. There are many different types of End Of Arm Tools. Some examples include:

  • Material Handlers: move parts from one place to another
  • Machine Vision: records data, locates parts, or provides error-prevention
  • Joining: welders, riveters, or other equipment that fastens parts together

The robots above look like they’re carrying weld guns. Weld guns are used to “spot weld” the frame of the vehicle together. Welders work by touching the top and bottom of a part of the vehicle. Then, they pass a high current from one side of the gun to the other. The heat generated by this current flow welds the metal of the vehicle together.

For this reason, each weld gun needs a weld controller. Each weld controller has to be setup to output a certain amount of power. Further, this power setting has to be carefully tested to ensure that the gun generates the right amount of heat to form a good weld.

Safety, Sensors, Feedback, And Motion

  • Gates, fencing, light curtains, E-Stop buttons, and other safety devices exist throughout the automation equipment to protect the people that work in the area
  • Also, sensors, switches, operator buttons, and other input devices inform the PLC on the status and position of various equipment
  • Lights, buzzers, displays, valves, motors, actuators, and other output devices move parts and help humans understand what the equipment is doing

Imagine the variety of these components present on a large automation line. There may be several sensors on one machine. Further, each sensor may work differently and come from a different manufacturer. An automated systems integrator must be able to install and configure all of these many, many different industrial automation devices.

Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC’s)

A “PLC” (Programmable Logic Controller) is the brains of the operation. PLC’s accept inputs from the equipment and sensors. The PLC then performs processing, and sets outputs based on its programming. These outputs then control the actions that take place in the automation.

For example, an air supply line has an analog pressure sensor. Our pressure sensor sends a signal to the PLC that represents the pressure read at the sensor. The PLC has been programmed to interpret the signal sent from the sensor. In the PLC’s logic, the signal’s value is converted back to a pressure reading.

Then, integrators have programmed the PLC to check this pressure reading against a minimum pressure. If the pressure reading is lower than the minimum pressure, the PLC turns on a pump. In this case, the PLC sets outputs to the pump that command it to turn on. This is an example of how integrators might program a PLC to manage air pressure in a supply line.

PLC’s must be carefully programmed for each application. This programming must take into consideration concerns for safety, quality, efficiency, ease of use, and repair.

Human-Machine Interfaces (HMI’s)

To allow operators to interact with the machinery without having to know how to program a PLC, there needs to be one or more “HMI” (Human-Machine Interface) panels. An HMI is a programmable display; it’s basically a fancy computer monitor. Using an HMI, someone can interact with the PLC through buttons and other input devices on the screen. Many modern HMI’s are rugged touchscreen interfaces, built to withstand the industrial environment.

An example of a custom Human-Machine Interface screen. This screen shows several feedback and control points for a well control system. HMI's are an example of what an automated systems integrator might be responsible for.
An example of a custom HMI screen used to control a well

What Jobs Are Available In Automated Systems Integration?

Often, a manufacturer will approach a systems integration company with a system it wants built. The integrator then designs and builds a complete automation solution that will assemble the manufacturer’s product. Building an automation line from scratch requires a variety of skills and talents.

  • Managers oversee the business side of the operation
  • Mechanical Engineers, Electrical Engineers, Automation Engineers, and engineers from other specialties will design the systems. Engineers will ensure that the equipment and programming meets the customer’s specifications and any appropriate codes and regulations. In this regard, engineers must dig into the little details to understand, for instance, what type of sensor will fit a particular application. Engineers may perform PLC programming, HMI design, and development of “templates” of logic for use in the PLC and robotics
  • Millwrights cut and weld large assemblies, operate lifting equipment, and fasten components to the building’s structure. Also, millwrights are often responsible for servicing and repairing large motors, gearboxes, and other heavy-duty mechanical devices
  • Toolmakers fabricate detailed components to tight tolerances
  • Robot Technicians set up and program robotic systems
  • Similarly, PLC Technicians set up and program the controllers
  • Industrial Electricians wire and install a wide range of electrical components, and may also program PLC’s, robots, and other electronic controllers

These are the core positions that automation integration shops employ. That is, at least in terms of building the automated systems. There may also be any number of other administrative positions in marketing, sales, finance, and other fields. On the technical side of the house, integrators may also employ Software Engineers, IT Technicians, and Facilities Engineers.

What Is It Like Working For An Automated Systems Integrator?

A typical work flow for an integration project might be as follows:

  • Firstly, project planning and materials acquisition
  • Machine assembly and programming at the integration facility
  • Transportation to the customer
  • Once on-site, machine installation, debug, and trials at the customer facility
  • On-site support as the customer takes on ownership of the equipment
  • Lastly, project wrap-up

Work Life As An Automation Integrator

Given that many integration projects consist of building an automated assembly line from scratch, integration work often occurs at the customer location. Depending on the size of the integration shop and the size of the project to which you’re assigned, very high travel percentages may be required. In other words, automated systems integrators may spend as much as 90-100% of their time away from home.

Customers who have purchased large or complicated automation solutions may require support well in to the launch of the project. Because of this, on-site support requirements can range from days to years. If you are a competent member of the team or have done a lot of the programming on a certain line, the company may ask you to stay on the road for months. In this case, many companies allow for you to travel home every couple of weeks.

Providing support for the customer can be stressful. The automation equipment that your company has built is what the customer uses to make money. For this reason, they may not be very happy when it breaks down.

On the other hand, you may be able to land a design or commissioning position that does not require any travel. Those performing “machine assembly” at the shop may be able to enjoy a similar lifestyle to other 9-to-5 positions. Even so, many shops will have “surges” in the pace of work. There may be slow periods followed by stretches where your boss wants you working overtime every day of the week.

Pay And Benefits For Automation Integrators

The good news is that many integration shops offer very competitive wages and benefits. While on the road, many shops pay both overtime and “Per Diem.” Per Diem is extra money the integration shop will pay you for each day away from home. This additional pay covers food and other costs.

There can be other perks of travelling. For example, opportunities to visit new places, work in cool facilities, and network with other professionals. When I have had to travel for automation work, I have generally been put up at nice or at least decent hotels and had dinner out on the company dime.

Whether or not you’re travelling, you may have the ability to participate in training and continuing education so that you can continue to grow technically. Not to mention, you’re building industrial automation equipment! If you’re a person who enjoys working with automation, it’s hard to find a more interesting or challenging job.

What Should I Study If I Want to Work For an Integrator?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on what type of position you’re pursuing.

  • For a position as a skilled tradesperson (millwright, toolmaker, electrician), see if you can land an internship
    • In certain areas, certificate or Associate’s programs may be available to help you get a job as a skilled tradesperson
  • For engineering, complete a Bachelor’s degree in the field of your choice (Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, etc.)
    • Automated systems integrators may also hire persons with degrees in Industrial Automation or Mechatronics
  • If you want to work as a PLC or robotics technician, you may be able to complete a local or online training program to help get your foot in the door
    • Industrial electricians with PLC or robot experience should be qualified for this type of position

In Summary

Integrators make magic happen – they turn disparate systems into one large, cohesive “machine.”  From custom assembly of heavy, metal fixtures, to robot and controller programming, an integration shop has to be able to do it all.

Are you aspiring to work for an integrator, or would you like to relate your own work experience in integration? If so, share your story in the comments below!

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Thanks for reading! Feel free to reach out in the comments below with any questions or comments.

Fix for RSLogix 5000 EXCEPTION_ACCESS_VIOLATION on Windows 10

When I first installed and tried to run RSLogix 5000 on my new Windows 10 laptop, I was met with the following ugly Fatal Error for an EXCEPTION_ACCESS_VIOLATION:

A pop-up dialog from RSLogix 5000 showing a Fatal Error for an EXCEPTION_ACCESS_VIOLATION.
The dreaded Fatal Error.

I searched through several forum posts and tried several solutions, but what solved the problem for me was running the program as administrator.  

To change this setting, first right-click the RSLogix 5000 shortcut and click Properties:

The RSLogix 5000 icon on a desktop with its right-click Context Menu shown and Properties highlighted.

In the Shortcut tab, click Advanced…

The RSLogix 5000 Properties dialog. The Shortcut tab is shown with the Advanced... button highlighted.

Check Run as administrator, then hit OK on both dialogs to commit the changes.

The Advanced... dialog. Make sure Run as Administrator is checked.

For me, this was all it took to fix the RSLogix 5000 EXCEPTION_ACCESS_VIOLATION on Windows 10!  Still having issues? Leave a comment with your situation, or check out this forum post on PLCS.net for some other things to try.

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So, You Want to Be an Industrial Automation Engineer

Are you considering or aspiring to a career as an Industrial Automation Engineer or Controls Engineer? Awesome choice. Below, I’ll talk about what employers are looking for in an Industrial Controls Engineer. Additionally, I’ll cover what a typical workday is like and some pros and cons of automation industry jobs. Lastly, we’ll look at what a career in the automation industry might pay, and where and how to look for jobs! Keep reading for a glimpse inside the life of an Industrial Automation Engineer!

 A sample of ladder logic, a PLC programming language that uses electrical symbols on "ladder rungs." Industrial automation engineers frequently perform PLC programming using ladder logic.
“Ladder logic,” a common PLC programming language.  PLC’s are microprocessors (computers) that are used to control manufacturing equipment.  Image credit.

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Controls Engineer Position Entry Requirements

For a bit of background, I work for Ford Motor Company as an Automation Engineer. Officially, my job title is Engineering Specialist, Controls. My Bachelor’s is actually in Information Technology, with a concentration in Software Development. Luckily, I had industry experience as an Automation Technician that helped me to get in to my current job.  

Much of my job focus is on developing and debugging Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) logic and robot programs. Because PLC’s and robots are just fancy computers, I’m often able to use the programming techniques, algorithmic thinking, and knowledge of networks that I learned in my degree program. Virtually all equipment at the plant where I work is on an Ethernet/IP network. For this reason, having an understanding of TCP/IP networks is very helpful when troubleshooting communication issues.

Despite my degree choice, if you’re interested in becoming an Industrial Automation Engineer, typical Bachelor’s degrees to pursue might include Electrical Engineering, Industrial Automation, or Mechatronics. Employers often cite a Bachelor’s in a field of study related to industrial automation engineering as a minimum hiring requirement.

Of course, hiring requirements are what the employer would like in the ideal case. There’s likely some wiggle room if you have the skills to do the job. Many technicians or electricians with PLC programming experience are able to become Controls Engineers.

Experience Requirements For Industrial Automation Engineering Jobs

Many employers list experience requirements when posting a job offering for Automation, Controls, or PLC Engineers. Are you worried about or having trouble moving directly into a Controls position out of school? If so, it may be helpful to first build some industry experience as an Industrial Electrician or Automation Technician.

There are also PLC training courses which can be very valuable in terms of gaining a foundation in PLC programming. Relevant training could possibly help you to get a foot in the door if you do not have experience.  In my perception, however, employers would prefer to see one or more years of industry experience programming and debugging PLC’s.

As a side note, I’m using the terms Controls, Controls Engineer, Automation Engineer, and Industrial Automation Engineer interchangeably. Someone in this career field may even be referred to as a “PLC Engineer”.
When looking for jobs, the only thing to be careful of is that the title “Automation Engineer” is now also used in the Software Testing field. Generally, if you see the terms “PLC,” “robot,” or “CNC” mentioned in the job listing, it is an Industrial Automation position and not a Software Test Automation position.

What Does An Automation Engineer Do Every Day?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on the company for which you work and your place in the hierarchy. I can only relate my own experience and that of the other Industrial Automation Engineers that I work with. I’d love to hear any comments from other Automation Controls Engineers. How do your responsibilities differ from my own? I would be happy to add your commentary to this post.

Control and automation engineering is a job of many hats. Most days, you will take on a variety of roles, from project management, to personnel administration, to emergency troubleshooting. In my position, my two primary job functions are breakdown response and Continuous Improvement.

Responding To Breakdowns

A plume of white smoke. If you've "let the smoke" out of your electronics, that's probably not good.
With electronics, you’re supposed to try to keep the smoke inside the equipment. If you see smoke coming out of a circuit board, that’s usually a bad sign.

The name of the game in industrial automation is production – a lot of production. Companies make money by building as many parts as possible during their production employees’ regularly-scheduled work day. For this reason, overtime hurts profits. Downtime hurts profits.

Manufacturing companies make money when the line is running and when it’s running fast. Jobs Per Hour, or “JPH”, is a key indicator of the health of a factory. There is, of course, some upper limit to how quickly any given process can occur. As a general rule: the more units you can build in a given time (hence, “Jobs Per Hour”), the better.

In such a fast-paced environment, and with equipment moving back and forth dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times per hour, things break! Cables fail, bearings wear out, sensors wiggle out of alignment; Murphy’s Law is active, big time. When things break, factories have a Maintenance Department that is responsible for figuring out what’s wrong and fixing it – as quickly as possible.

Automation And Control Engineer Roles On Breakdowns

Where I work, the Controls Engineer’s role on breakdowns is somewhere between supervision and high-tier tech support.  As a salaried employee, the Controls Engineer is responsible to the company for ensuring that the equipment gets back up and running as quickly as possible.  Sometimes, this means fixing the problem at hand. Sometimes, however, it means finding a creative way to work around the problem.  For this responsibility, you may need to lead and direct maintenance personnel. You will succeed as a Controls Engineer if you:

  • Keep a cool head under pressure
  • Become knowledgeable about your facility’s equipment
  • Direct others so that they are able to think and perform their best

I wouldn’t describe myself as an introvert, but I’m not the most extroverted person in the world, either. To succeed in breakdown response, I strive to become knowledgeable about as many systems as I can. If I know what to do to fix a problem, I can help to guide the team to success.

An animation of Johnny Five, a fictional robot, reading a book extremely quickly.
INPUT. MORE INPUT.  Image credit.

Follow-Up After Breakdowns

It’s also the Control and Automation Engineer’s job to follow up after breakdowns. I think of this role as “harvesting information”. It will be your job to figure out the nitty-gritty details of what went wrong. Once you understand the problem, you can communicate it to others. This helps your organization to become faster and more knowledgeable. Many breakdowns consist of the same problems, occurring over and over again.

Once your organization knows the cause of a problem, and how to correct it, you can improve your “MTTR”. MTTR, or “Mean Time To Repair”, is a term that describes how long it takes to recover from an issue on average. Reducing MTTR raises your “availability”. Availability is what percentage of your factory’s productive time is spent actually building units. When you raise availability, you often raise JPH – and that means success for your organization.

Filling Your Organization’s Knowledge Gaps

At times, you may be working with equipment that isn’t commonly used or that does not commonly break. A production line might be down, and there may not be anyone around who is deeply knowledgeable.  In these cases, the Automation Engineer is often asked to follow up on the problem. You may have to contact the equipment’s manufacturer, if necessary. Once you understand the issue, you may be asked to provide technical write-ups and how-to’s for the factory’s maintenance personnel.  Some skill in technical writing can come in handy here.

Another possibility is that you will have to perform a temporary repair to get the line going. In cases like this, you’ll need to come back during scheduled maintenance time to finish the job and restore the equipment to its original state. You will need solid organizational skills to ensure that you are resolving important issues when follow-up is needed.

While breakdowns have the potential to be stressful, they are also sometimes the best teachers. Nothing makes being knowledgeable about a piece of equipment more relevant than when it brings the factory to a halt and no one seems to know how to fix it.

No one begins a career in Controls knowing everything. When you work in automation controls engineering, every day should be an opportunity to learn more about the equipment, network, protocols, and infrastructure with which you’re working. You will greatly sharpen your skills and knowledge as a Controls Engineer by following up on the breakdowns.

Continuous Improvement

Breakdowns are emergent events (they just happen all of a sudden). When the factory stops making parts, it’s “all hands on deck” to get things moving again.  While breakdowns are the “event-driven” part of the job, my “default state” is working on Continuous Improvement projects.

Continuous Improvement is exactly what it sounds like; it is a practice and mindset of continually boosting production capabilities. This is done by working to improve safety, quality, cost, JPH, MTBF, MTTR*, or sometimes just making things easier for the people who supply and repair the automation lines.

*JPH, MTBF, and MTTR are metrics that summarize the productivity of equipment in an automated factory.  JPH, or “Jobs Per Hour,” is simply how many units you are building per hour.  As a general rule, the more, the better!  Mean Time Between Failure is how often, on average, you are able to use a piece of equipment before it breaks down. Mean Time To Repair, explained above, is how long, on average, it takes you to get the equipment back up and running when it does break.

Factories come in all shapes and sizes, but for me at Ford’s Super Duty Body shop, the factory is enormous. There are dozens of lines of automation just on my side of the shop, with each unit travelling more than a mile in its journey to become a truck! Continuous Improvement is all of the little changes and improvements made throughout the entire shop. These changes contribute to a gradual betterment of production, repair, and ease of use.

As an industrial automation engineer, Continuous Improvement is a focal point of my job. Luckily for me, this is a part of my job that I very much enjoy. As I’ll describe below, Continuous Improvement is a chance to develop solutions to my organization’s problems – and then make those solutions come to life.

A picture of a Ford Super Duty body; just the metal cab, unpainted with no trim installed. As an industrial automation engineer, you may have the opportunity to be part of some really cool processes.
This is what I build; the world’s first aluminum heavy-duty pickup.

How Do You Perform Continuous Improvement?

Continuous Improvement is what I find most rewarding, as the task is essentially this:

  • Identify a problem that, if fixed, would improve production or repair in some way
  • Come up with a way that you think you can fix it
  • Research and purchase the equipment, components, sensors, etc. that you would need to make it happen
  • Wait for the parts to come in and then work with other people in the factory to implement your solution
  • Stand back and marvel at the results!

It’s pretty cool to know that you’ve personally organized improvements that subtly alter the manufacturing process for every unit your organization builds. Projects come in all shapes and sizes.. I’ve worked on projects that took only a few hours, such as adding lights to show operators when to load parts, and I’ve worked improvements that took coordinated efforts during scheduled downtime over weeks, including a modernization project (upgrading the capabilities of older equipment by adding modern processors and interfaces).  

If you want to become an Industrial Automation Engineer, it will sure be helpful if you enjoy this kind of work. Your organization will have issues that it needs to solve through automation engineering – and you’ll be the one doing the engineering. As I mention above, Continuous Improvement is a part of my job that I love. I get to design and implement solutions, and then see those solutions come to life in front of me.

Continuous Improvement In Industrial Automation Engineering

At the time of this writing, I have a project active to automate the shutdown of my side of the shop at the end of each shift – a task that is currently handled manually on each automation line by Production Supervisors.  If everything goes my way, I’ll be taking a process that currently involves about two dozen people throughout the shop placing holds on their lines at certain times, and consolidating the same functionality into a single interface on which the Production Manager can stop the lines however they like for the next shift.

For this project, I will develop new PLC logic, create new PanelView screens, and work with smart, engaged people. Together, we’ll implement and debug the solution until it’s working flawlessly. Personally, I love to solve puzzles and figure out how things work. If you are that type of person as well, you were made for this part of the job.

An example Human-Machine Interface, of the type that might be found in an industrial factory. This particular screen shows the status of two pumps overlaid on top of a schematic of the overall system. Industrial automation engineers often design HMI screens and program corresponding PLC logic to drive the screens.
“PanelView” is a brand name for an “HMI,” or Human-Machine Interface. HMI’s, in this context, are rugged, programmable touch-screen displays found throughout a factory. You don’t want people to have to go to the controller logic every time there’s an issue. HMI’s provide a GUI with which operators and maintenance personnel can control the equipment.

Succeeding At Continuous Improvement

Success in executing Continuous Improvement will require many of the same skills that you will need when responding to breakdowns. You’ll need to track your projects and purchases. Further, you’ll need to share your vision with others and organize their efforts in completing the work.

Additionally, you may need to justify your purchases to your manager! You’ll need good judgment for what will help the shop and can be done affordably. You will need to know when to defend your ideas, and when to accept rejection gracefully, if appropriate.

You need to be able to approach things somewhat scientifically. It’s important to strive to understand the behavior of the systems that you’re working with to the greatest extent possible, given your available time, so that you can develop a solution that will function as you expect.

As a final note, Continuous Improvement is another excellent opportunity to acquire new and hone existing skills, as you won’t typically be under the pressure of the breakdown environment. When you’re doing development (writing new logic or developing new screens), it will often be in an offline, scheduled downtime type situation. This means you’ll have some room to breathe and figure out how to make things work the way you need them to work. You can play around with new equipment or software and gain experience and skills. You can then bring your new knowledge to future projects – and can call upon it at future breakdowns.

Pros And Cons Of Being An Automation Engineer

While I love my job, every position has some good and some bad. I want to give you an honest sense of what I see as the pros and cons of a career in Industrial Automation.

Industrial Automation Engineering Pros:

  • Technically Challenging I love learning and striving for mastery of new systems. If you’re like me, it’s awesome to be surrounded every day by a fortress of high-tech equipment. It’s your job to become the expert!
  • Pride My grandfather turned 100 the year that I was hired into my current job. I was incredibly proud to tell him that I would be working for Ford Motor Company as an Automation Engineer
  • Pay Many Controls positions should easily reach six figures. This is particularly true if a lot of travel and overtime are involved
  • Benefits If you’re hiring into a position as an Automation Engineer, chances are that it’s with an established company. You can likely expect a decent insurance and vacation package
  • Being a Part of Something – My work in automation has taken me to three countries (my short time in Germany was awesome). I’ve been to awesome major facilities including Ford and Tesla plants. Become a skilled Controls Engineer, and you could work for some of the biggest, most high-tech manufacturers on Earth

Cons Of Being An Industrial Automation Engineer:

  • Long Hours – I have worked 8’s, 10’s, and 12’s for Ford. I work 12-hour shifts on my current schedule, and have worked 12’s throughout most of my other experience in the industry
  • Rotating Shifts – Depending on the company and its seniority policies, you could be stuck periodically working a shift that you don’t like (night shift, weekends, etc.). In some organizations, you might be stuck on a shift you don’t like until someone leaves their position or the company
  • Travel – Depending on the position, extensive travel may be required. This can be very stressful for families. The flip side to this is that you will often be paid more while travelling. So, travel might be a pro, depending on your personal situation
  • Labor Relations – Speaking as a salaried employee in a union shop, your success may hinge on your ability to elicit the best out of others. If your shop operates under a union contract, you might also need to tread carefully in regards to what work you can and cannot perform on operational equipment
  • Stress – When the line is down, the company is losing money. People will be looking to you to get everything back up and running

Weird Schedules Could Be Good Or Bad

Let me offer another point of view in regards to my schedule: while the 12’s are long days, consider that the average person working a nine-to-five job works 10 days out of every 14. Nine-to-five employees work M-F, then off two days, then M-F, then off two, and so on.

Because I work 12’s, I only work 7 days out of every 14. I’d try to explain my schedule, but it’s much easier to just show you. I work the green days on this calendar:

A calendar showing the days that I work.
I told you it’s a weird schedule

Now, this looks a bit strange and horrible at first, but now consider:

  • I have 4 days off in a row every other week
  • Every other week, I only have a 2-day work week
  • If I take 2 days of vacation on my 2-day work week, I am off of work for 9 days

I’ve only ever seen this schedule implemented at Ford, but my point in mentioning this is that in manufacturing, there may be multiple options for you as far as what shift you work. You may be able to find something that really works well for your family and lifestyle.

Automation Engineer Salary – Let’s Talk Turkey

So, what can you expect in terms of salary as an Industrial Automation Engineer? Controls Engineering (again, I’m using the terms “controls” and “industrial automation” interchangeably) is a demanding field requiring solid technical, organizational, and people skills. Automation Engineers can expect to earn a decent income.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have a listing for “Industrial Automation Engineer,” “Controls Engineer,” or “Automation Engineer.” Here are the average salaries listed on various career and industry sites for “Controls Engineer” or “Electrical Controls Engineer” (this information last updated 30 Dec 2019):

SiteAverage Salary
Glassdoor$73,526
Indeed$81,834
Payscale.com$76,178
ZipRecruiter$82,078
ControlEng.com$100,339
Salary.com (Engineer I)$70,702
Salary.com (Engineer II)$88,665
Salary.com (Engineer III)$106,564

PLC Engineer Jobs – Where And How To Get One

If you have the right education and/or experience to pursue a position as a Controls Engineer (or Industrial Automation Engineer, or PLC Engineer, or however you want to say it 🙂 ), where should you start looking? Well, like many jobs, there are a lot of avenues by which you can apply for a position as an Automation Engineer. Overall, here are the angles of attack when trying to get hired on as a Controls Engineer:

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Getting A Job As An Automation Engineer By Applying To Companies Directly

In my opinion, there are two steps you need to take before proceeding on any portion of your job search:

  1. First, get your resume in order!
  2. Then, get a set of professional, business-casual attire in order!

Got those taken care of? If so, let’s apply for jobs.

To make a long story short, there are a lot of ways to apply for a position as an Automation Engineer online. I don’t discount the notion of walking into a company wearing a tie (or other appropriate business clothing) and handing out your resume.

With that said, more and more companies are posting their openings online, which means they’re receiving more and more applications. It’s my personal opinion that you have to respond in kind. By this, I mean that if you are actively pursuing a career as a PLC engineer, you will need to apply for many, many openings in the hopes of receiving a few calls.

Applying for so many Controls Engineer positions online can be painful and time-consuming. With that said, the good news is that you’ll likely be exposed to a variety of positions. In your search, you might stumble upon a PLC Engineer job or two that really piques your interest. Here are some places you can look online for Automation Engineer careers:

Big Job Boards

Of course, there are the common, big-name job boards. Companies in many different industries are posting positions on these boards. There are a ton of these boards out there. Below, you’ll find just a few of the PLC engineer searches from the big boards:

Technical Recruiting Sites

There are also job postings through technical recruiters. Here are a few of the PLC engineer job searches on boards of this type:

Industry-Specific Job Boards

Have a passion for work in a particular industry? You can try job boards that are industry-specific, such as:

Additional Resources

Some other options might include applying for positions with contract companies, or applying to a company or for a position that you admire directly. There are a lot of places on the Internet to apply for a job. So, get your resume together, and get to it!

Reach Out To Your Network To Get Hired As A PLC Engineer

We all know the old adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. While I don’t think this is always the case, it is certainly nice to have someone on the inside who can put in a good word for you. At the very least, it’s a lot easier to get an interview if someone mentions your name to the hiring manager.

  • Are you a student?
    • Your instructors likely know people and companies in the industry
    • See if they know of any job openings or if the school has any intern or co-op opportunities
  • Are you an intern?
    • Talk to people within the company or organization for which you work
    • Ask about what you need to do to align yourself for consideration for a full-time position
  • Go to job fairs and other industry gatherings!
    • Search in your area for job fairs, trade shows, etc. related to your industry
    • Dress professionally, bring some resumes in document protectors, and meet people!

Professional Networking In The Information Age

Not everyone is in a position where they know someone who can help them get an interview. While we aren’t all that lucky, we are all lucky enough to have access to an awesome networking platform – LinkedIn.

If you are searching for jobs, or searching for people to fill jobs, it’s absolutely my opinion that you should have an up-to-date, professional profile on LinkedIn. It’s free, it’s easy, and there are lots of people who are trying to fill the positions you’re applying for. Those people are on LinkedIn looking for people like you.

Talk To A Technical Recruiter About Controls Engineer Openings

As you can imagine, searching for a position as an Automation Engineer is hard work. Why take on all of that responsibility yourself, when you can engage someone else (or even several other people) to help you out?

You’re in luck. Technical recruiters will take on some of this workload for you. What’s more, you don’t pay a technical recruiter. The hiring company pays them. In fact, you’re doing them a bit of a favor by reaching out to them. You’ve saved them the time of finding you, the qualified candidate. So, for free, you basically get an agent who will try to link you and your resume with job openings in your area. That’s not a bad deal, if you ask me.

How To Connect With A Technical Recruiter

Linking up with a technical recruiter is easy:

  1. First, open your web browser
  2. Next, type “technical recruiting” in Google
  3. Then, click the Maps option
  4. Lastly, call a recruiter

If you do this, I bet you an ice cream cone that there will be several technical recruiting firms in the city closest to you. With those easy steps, you’ll be on the phone with a technical recruiter.

So, make sure your resume’s up-to-date and call a couple of these folks up. Let them know what education and experience you can bring to the table as a future Controls Engineer. In my experience, there will be several people who are sitting by their phone right now, hoping that someone like you will call. Well, assuming it’s during working hours on a business day, anyway.

Let Us Link You With Opportunities

Wouldn’t you know it, but our organization is literally built to help you advance your career in industrial automation?

Click the link above and spend just a few moments telling us about yourself and your goals. We’ll work to get your name out there with the kinds of organizations you’re hoping to become a part of. We want to help you move forward in your automation career.

Is A Controls Job Right For You?

To me, the biggest question you have to ask yourself is whether you like solving problems and learning about new equipment.  

  • Do your interests include electronics and programming?
  • Are you the type of person who has to read and tinker until you understand what you’re doing?

If so, then you might do well as an Automation Engineer. If you’re in it for the money, you could probably fake it till you make it even if your interests aren’t well-aligned. With that said, the engineers I know who are very successful are people who gobble up as much knowledge as they can at every turn, and are regarded as world-class experts in their specialties.

Are you currently applying for a position as an Automation Engineer? Are you still in college, considering possible career paths for your future? Wherever you are in your journey, tell us about it in the comments below. We love to hear from other technicians and engineers.


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