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Hi, folks. Fred, good thread to start. Without being too wordy, I’ll give some of my advice and how I got to where I am in the controls industry.
My first suggestion would be to learn everything one can about electrical controls; I.E. relay logic, motor controls, motors, VFD’s, sensors, transmitters, encoders, anything industrial that is used in processing or motion. That would include safety controls. One would need lots of hands on experience with tools of the trade and be willing to work long hours on start ups, de-bugs and shutdowns/turnarounds.
After a few years of that one could either self-teach ones self (as I did) or get some community college training in PLC programming and hardware. Personally, I believe starting out in Allen-Bradley is a good idea because A-B is designed for electricians. So I feel it is easy to learn. Ladder logic.
If one is working in a plant, beg, threaten, cajole until your supervisor gets a lab set up. There may already be a “test bench”. Get on a laptop and write a program. Make up your own sequences and then follow it through and see it work–de-bug it. If one is working in a plant, follow the pros around when they’re troubleshooting and doing on-line edits. And now that I mentioned it, troubleshooting, either in panels, controllers, and on line with a PLC using the logic to see what’s “holding you out” is paramount.
I was very blessed to have gotten a job at a public utility where they gave you everything and told you to “go learn it” A-B PLC-5 and RS 5. Lots of analog, logic, interlocks, etc. and I was able to pick up on that over 10 years. Made a lot of mistakes. I had been an industrial electrician for over 10 years already and was 100 % proficient in either construction, controls, and troubleshooting. (That’s 300 %, I guess, but oh well) And believe me, the troubleshooting is what got me that job. I had to do a 6 hour practical test/interview. I had to troubleshoot a control panel that had been rigged using regular tools, meters, prints, etc. while the supervisors watched and had coffee. I got the job, so learn that troubleshooting.
I have now worked myself up to a really good job as a controls engineer at an integrator that is very diversified in it’s work-automotive, aerospace, HVAC, you name it. We don’t need to worry too much if the auto industry takes a hiccup. I get to spend a lot of time in the office writing programs, which is what I like to do, and then I HAVE to go out and make them work–make that machine work in a short time. Start up, de-bug, commission, function check, training, buy-off. Cradle to grave. I don’t run conduit anymore, don’t do too much electrical work and I don’t know as much about PLC hardware as I ought to. The less physical stuff is good as I’m getting older, and apparently they’re satisfied with me because I just got 2 more projects. Our company has a very good reputation here.
In conclusion, just remember to learn electrical; basic electronics, troubleshooting, Ohm’s law, anything industrial. Then, if you want the controls, force your way into getting the time to write programs, go to a community college, a good one with a placement program, and then work hard and learn all you can. I hope to stop working full time in a few years and maybe do some teaching-basic electrical, PLC’s, stuff like that. Good luck to all of you future controls engineers, and thanks Fred for allowing me to contribute to the forum.