What advice would you offer new (young) controls engineers?

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  • #3253
    Fred GrahamFred Graham
    Keymaster
    • Topics: 15
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    I thought I would start a thread that may offer some guidance to young, new or recently graduated controls engineers entering the field of industrial automation. Let’s offer up some constructive advice to the next generation of us!

    #3256
    George BarnetteGeorge Barnette
    Moderator
    • Topics: 3
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    Rank: Jedi

    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.

    #3261
    Fred GrahamFred Graham
    Keymaster
    • Topics: 15
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    Great insight George! I don’t think I could have said it any better myself!

    Let’s keep the ball rolling on this thread, if anyone out there has some more to offer, please do! The “Industry 5.0” generation will appreciate it (…at least I think that would be the next one in the iteration…I’m losing track)!

    #3332
    Cajun ConfiguratorSean Terrell
    Moderator
    • Topics: 6
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    • Total Posts: 35
    Karma: 184
    Rank: Jedi

    Get out of the office and operate. Actually put your feet where the operator is going to stand, or mash the buttons the operator is going to have to mash. Look at the screen she is going to have to gather information from and stare at it… Stare at every screen for over an hour, with your feet in the spot he is going to stand. Maybe you will find that mounting that HMI 6 feet off the ground is not such a great idea when you start to get a crick in your neck.

    Do it for 12 hours. then do it for 12 hours more. Writing a program from engineering documents, or making an HMI or flow work according to a control narrative is not the hard part. The hard part is figuring out that if you have to press three keys on the touchscreen, every. single. machine. cycle. Your operators arent going to like you, your finger is going to be sore after 12 hours, and production’s precious cycle time is going to be ridiculous, and you are going to run through HMI’s about every 6 months.

    When you are designing a panel that is going to be installed outside of a building, on the south side, in Southern Texas, maybe a 6 inch black and white PVP is not the best choice for this environment. Unless you are only going to look at it at night.

    Sit in the controlroom and watch the SCADA for a week. Seriously. A week. You will find pretty quickly that not everything needs HIHI, HI, LO, and LOLO alarms or shutdowns. In fact you will find pretty quickly that the way that operators operate, especially in control rooms, is not per the obvious design. And alot of that has to do with, “thats how we have always done it”. Because someone changed something 3 years ago, never finished the project and the gal currently running the thing was hired on 2 years ago and she is a jam up operator but the bypass work around hacky fix is literally all she knows. Its just “the way you do it”.

    Also, learn very quickly, talk to operators. Ask them questions. They are intimately familiar with how something is supposed to run. And sometimes that is exactly the key to unlocking the problem.

    The millennial generation and the one following them, are very thoughtful and socially concerned people. I am sure that the next generations of engineers and automation guys are going to work tirelessly to make other peoples lives better, safer, cleaner, and more comfortable. But you cannot do that on social media, angry facing a picture of something that “shouldn’t be.” Put on your nikes that you bought, and lets go for a ride, put your hands on everything and never quit trying to make it better, smoother, faster, slicker, leaner and meaner.

    Drive it like you stole it.

    -Scooter

     

    #3334
    George BarnetteGeorge Barnette
    Moderator
    • Topics: 3
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    Karma: 164
    Rank: Jedi

    Sean

    Morning, that’s  very, very good advice, and I was taught that a long time ago–ask the operators. I don’t know how many times they have pointed me right to an electrical or controls/PLC problem and saved me countless hours. And, as a controls engineer, one needs to repay the favors. Rearrange the screens if it will simplify their work, increase production time, etc. Granted, they don’t run the maintenance or control division, but as you pointed out, they have to USE it; you don’t.

    I was called over to a very old CNC machine one day, an axis had stopped taking commands, and so the machine was down. A very old Fadal, made back in the eighties. I had already fixed the tool changer, which hadn’t worked in about a year, so I was eager to help this operator out, and he was very pleased that now the tool changer worked. When I got over there, I had no clue where to start. The operator told me “the last time this happened was about 2 years ago. The other electrician took all the motion boards out and used a pencil eraser and cleaned the contacts where the boards plug in. I don’t know if that’s it, but you might want to have look at that.” Then he showed me which boards they were, because I had no clue. Did exactly what he suggested, fired it back up and it worked perfectly. He very well could have went on break, caught up on his paperwork, anything but help, and left me to the rantings of the production supervisor, but he didn’t.

    And +1 on Alarms. I worked for a large utility out west for about 11 years, and spent many hours in SCADA asking operators about problems with a station or a motor starting issue or whatever. I asked one day what the graphic meant that there were 760 alarms. The said, yes, there are that many alarms. There are supposed to be only about 10. “Engineering is working on it”, they said. For the last 8 years. “We ignore about everything you see there. The only ones that get a response from us are power fail, low or no flow (it was a water utility), loss of pressure and level readback or if a call gets dropped. (SCADA used a radio interface with all the sites from the main control room). These hi’s and low’s and building temperature are all just a bunch of fluff and B.S. We’ve been wanting this fixed since I’ve been here, and that’s 16 years.”

    So when these new engineers have a horn or light go off every 8 seconds because of following sequencing instead of common sense, then you’ll get the “cry wolf” syndrome and when a real issue pops up, they’ll ignore it.

    I really hope this generation is as focused on leaving a legacy for their next generation as we were for them. We have to teach them all we know and let them drive on. Have a great week!!

    #3337
    Cajun ConfiguratorSean Terrell
    Moderator
    • Topics: 6
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    Karma: 184
    Rank: Jedi

    Thanks for the backup Mr George, You’ve got a few years experience on me.. Not calling you old… But I can tell you are a salty hand, simply meaning that you’ve got the, as we said in the Navy “time on the pond”, seen most of it, fixed it when it broke, and tried to make it better when you can. It means alot to me that I can make good points for the next generation when I barely feel like Ive got the experience to step into the shoes that I am still learning from.

    On a strayed off side note.. if you’ve been around Detroit for while, I am sure that we have worked on some on the same equipment, the same lines, or at least in the same plants. a few years back, before the oil and gas industry sucked me in, I worked for a machine tool OEM. German company that makes Punches and Press Brakes, and CNC’s and sheetmetal cutters and lasers. That was where I got my start in automation. Worked on Marker Lasers for a while and they realized I had a real knack for programming and helping the plant guys integrate the lasers. Like on the ConRod line at Detroit Diesel. I worked that stupid line for hours and hours when they first put in the laser.

    anyway, I certainly appreciate guys like you, and like Mr Fred that are available to throw out solutions to obscure issues. Ive got one that I might be writing up a post on. SCADAPack controller… Yeah. fun.

    You have a great week yourself sir.

     

    – Scooter

    #3339
    George BarnetteGeorge Barnette
    Moderator
    • Topics: 3
    • Replies: 14
    • Total Posts: 17
    Karma: 164
    Rank: Jedi

    Sean (Scooter)

    Aaahhh, no problem, man. At the risk of “dating” myself, I was a journeyman Detroit Diesel mechanic back in the heyday of the 2-strokes. Lots of Marine and power generation applications in the Northwest and Alaska.

    Like you said, fix it when it’s broke. They won’t keep you very long in Alaska if you can’t do that quickly. Send you right home on the next flight.

    That oilfield stuff is a rough road to follow. I roughnecked even before I was a diesel mechanic. Made derrick man.

    Hey, have a good week. You seem way ahead of me as far as HMI’s–I need to get up to 100% proficiency on those so you’ll be hearing from me for your advice. Take care.

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