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Electrical Engineers in Automation: What Are the Success Stories?

The following technical discussion is part of an occasional series showcasing the ISA Mentor Program, authored by Greg McMillan, industry consultant, author of numerous process control books, 2010 ISA Life Achievement Award recipient, and retired Senior Fellow from Solutia, Inc. (now Eastman Chemical). Greg will be posting questions and responses from the ISA Mentor Program, with contributions from program participants.


Byron Franklin is presently an automation engineer for Cooper Machinery Services Houston with more than 11 years of experience as a field services technician and an automation engineer. He has an associate of applied science degree, 30 hours toward a B.S. in information system security, and is working on a B.S. in electrical engineering.

 

Byron Franklin’s Question

Have there been many success stories of electrical engineers in automation careers, specifically PLC programming and control system engineers?

 

Hunter Vegas’s Answer

As a group, I would say most automation engineers are quite happy and well-compensated.  There are not many of us, very few people understand automation, and everything is getting automated, so that puts us all in a pretty good spot.  I have heard promises of “self-configuring software” that was going to render all automation engineers obsolete for decades now, but I think the reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Based on all I see, I cannot imagine any decent automation engineer will be lacking for work anytime soon.  Since most managers do not understand what we do, but it saves the companies a lot of money, they continue to put up with our quirks and keep us on the job.

The downsides of automation do exist.  Some items that come immediately to mind include:

  • It is hard to learn. Very few colleges offer any kind of an “automation degree” so most of the people who do this just ended up here. The bulk of us are electrical engineers, but there are quite a few chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, and plenty of non-degreed technicians who worked their way into the role. Most everyone learns by doing it or by working under a mentor who shows them how.

    Unfortunately, many companies are shrinking their engineering groups, so learning from a seasoned engineer is becoming less likely. That is why Greg and I have written the books we have, and why we started the ISA Mentor Program. We are trying to give folks a leg up.

  • It is hard to keep current. Automation technology is moving at lightning speed.  If you do not make a very strong effort to remain knowledgeable on the current technology, you will fall behind quickly.  As a manager, I have to make a very concerted effort to constantly be involved in heavy design, or my knowledge will become obsolete in just a year or two. The other hard part is that not all new technology is better, or even good! Some of it is quite terrible! That makes our jobs harder.

  • Like any engineering position, the pay can plateau. There are generally two career tracks available to engineers: technical or management. Typical engineers are comfortable with the technical track. They do not have to speak to people much or manage others; they just have to be the “go-to technical people.”

    Initially, that role pays well out of school, but the pay flattens quickly. The tech people can be fairly highly paid, but only if they continuously come up with ideas and projects that improve the company’s bottom line. The management track is harder for most engineers because it involves people, emotions, conflict, and so on. This is generally not an engineer’s strong suit, and the answers are rarely cut-and-dry. It also takes them away from the technical stuff, which they truly love.

    However, the management track does pay significantly more, and the top end can be very high indeed. I personally have tried to shoot the gap in the middle. I am an engineering manager who keeps a heavy hand in the design side as well. That lets me both manage and do engineering. The role works well for me.

Greg McMillan’s Answer

I think our profession is uniquely exciting with a lot of opportunities. Many have moved up to management positions, but very few have left the profession. The automation system is the window into the process and the means of affecting the process. By using the best instrumentation, control strategies, and tuning, you can reduce variabilitynot only from problems originating from the process, mechanical design, or operator, but also from the control system, which is often the biggest source of disturbances. The challenge is that the literature out there is often more marketing-oriented or academic.

If you can go beyond the routine requirements and invest time in learning what Hunter and I are sharing through publications and the Mentor Programand exploring opportunities on your own timeyou can become an extraordinary automation engineer. Some companies have technical positions that recognize the value of technical expertise by the title “Fellow,” “Technologist,” “Principal,” and “Senior.” Dow, 3M, Solutia, and DuPont offer recognition by such titles. ISA does this as well, by the title “Fellow.”

At Monsanto and its spinoff Solutia, there was no upper grade level or pay limit to a “Distinguished Fellow” when I worked there. Theoretically, a Distinguished Fellow could be at the same level and get the same pay as a company president. I doubt this ever happened, but it was encouraging. I think there were a half dozen Monsanto Distinguished Fellows in corporate research and engineering back in the 1980s.

I got a M.S. degree in electrical engineering focusing on control theory with a couple of courses on distillation modeling and control. My thesis was on a charge balance and strategies for pH modeling and control. I had a B.S. in engineering physics, requiring all the courses of a physics major plus taking electives in mechanical and chemical engineering.

I think the education provided a foundation on physical principles and a deeper understanding of control system dynamics, but nearly all of what I used on my job was learned on-the-job—and by reading publications by Greg Shinskey and key practitioners, most notably those at Foxboro and DuPont in the 1970s. On the job, I was fortunate to be able to develop small first-principle dynamic simulations that enabled me to get at the heart of the matter before I ventured into the field with a process control improvement. See the Control article “Advancing career and system performance” (August 2020) for more on my path to success.

Unfortunately, most publications today are oriented to selling hardware or software, with often an IT focus on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) being the total solution. Practitioners at companieswho are users, not suppliers of automation systemsare typically not given the time or encouragement to publish, often presented with many procedural hurdles (particularly at chemical and especially biopharmaceutical companies) to ensure knowledge is of no value to competitors.

At Monsanto and Solutia, I was encouraged to publish, making it a way of life for me that continues to this day. My writing and mentoring have always been done on my own time, and while I work for a supplier these days, I am in research and developmentwhich helps me to continue my goal of discovering and sharing knowledge to advance the profession.

 

Additional Mentor Program Resources

See the ISA book 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career that grew out of this Mentor Program to gain concise and practical advice. See the Control Talk column How to effectively get engineering knowledge with the ISA Mentor Program protégée Keneisha Williams on the challenges faced by young engineers today, and the column How to succeed at career and project migration with protégé Bill Thomas on how to make the most out of yourself and your project. Providing discussion and answers besides Greg McMillan and co-founder of the program Hunter Vegas (project engineering manager at Wunderlich-Malec) are resources Mark Darby (principal consultant at CMiD Solutions), Brian Hrankowsky (consultant engineer at a major pharmaceutical company), Michel Ruel (executive director, engineering practice at BBA Inc.), Leah Ruder (director of global project engineering at the Midwest Engineering Center of Emerson Automation Solutions), Nick Sands (ISA Fellow and Manufacturing Technology Fellow at DuPont), Bart Propst (process control leader for the Ascend Performance Materials Chocolate Bayou plant), Angela Valdes (automation manager of the Toronto office for SNC-Lavalin), and Daniel Warren (senior instrumentation/electrical specialist at D.M.W. Instrumentation Consulting Services, Ltd.).

Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan
Gregory K. McMillan, CAP, is a retired Senior Fellow from Solutia/Monsanto where he worked in engineering technology on process control improvement. Greg was also an affiliate professor for Washington University in Saint Louis. Greg is an ISA Fellow and received the ISA Kermit Fischer Environmental Award for pH control in 1991, the Control magazine Engineer of the Year award for the process industry in 1994, was inducted into the Control magazine Process Automation Hall of Fame in 2001, was honored by InTech magazine in 2003 as one of the most influential innovators in automation, and received the ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010. Greg is the author of numerous books on process control, including Advances in Reactor Measurement and Control and Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements in the Process Industry. Greg has been the monthly "Control Talk" columnist for Control magazine since 2002. Presently, Greg is a part time modeling and control consultant in Technology for Process Simulation for Emerson Automation Solutions specializing in the use of the digital twin for exploring new opportunities.

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