What does an automation engineer do?
Ah, this question has haunted me since the day I chose my degree. Every time I told someone I studied mechatronics engineering, I got the same questions:
- Is it like mechanical engineering?
- Mecha what? What does that mean?
- So you make robots for a living?
I have to confess that even though I researched the topic before choosing it, I wasn’t sure myself what I’d be studying. Of course, the “robots” hook swung a lot of weight in my decision.
Anyway, after years of studying and working in automation, I now have an idea of what an automation engineer can do – or at least I hope so! For anyone interested in becoming one or just curious about the profession, I’ll break down what being an automation engineer means, where you can work, and even how much you might earn.
What is automation?
Before we talk about this profession we need to outline the concept behind it. Automation is the art of creating and applying technology to monitor and control processes that govern the production and delivery of products and services. That’s the definition according to ISA, the International Society of Automation. Don’t worry if you still don’t understand. I have an example for you.
So automation consists of three components – measurement, control, and actuation. Now, if you’re in Ireland on a hot day, then you may decide to have a refreshing Guinness. In case you’ve never heard, the Emerald Isle has a ritual for pouring a perfect pint of Guinness.
Step 1 – Choosing
You’ll need a 20-ounce tulip-shaped pint glass, clean and dry. One with the Guinness logo will serve you best. You’ll see why in a moment.
Step 2 – Filling
Hold the glass under the tap at a 45-degree angle and pull the handle forward to fill the pint to the edge of the tulip’s bump. On the Guinness glasses, the harp shows you where to stop.
Step 3 – Settling
With the pint filled to the harp, set it on the bar and let it settle. In less than two minutes you’ll have an obvious line between the dark body and creamy head.
Step 4 – Finishing
Once it settles, hold the pint level under the tap and push the handle away so the Guinness flows more slowly into the glass. Top it up, and you have a perfectly poured pint, certified by Guinness. (Yes, you can get a certificate if you visit the Dublin brewery.)
If you’ve never seen this process, you can check it out in this video< But what does that have to do with our topic? Well, you use all three basic elements of automation. First, we have the eye for the measurement. The person has to see the size, shape, and angle of the pint, how much Guinness is in it, and so on. But the eye needs direction, naturally. That brings us to the second element, the control. In this case, your brain makes all the decisions, like whether you chose the right glass or if you filled the pint enough. But the pint won’t pour itself, will it? So here's the third element, the actuation, or your hands. As the eye measures, the brain controls the hands, and the hands perform the actions. Also, this process is constant, like a loop. If you see that you tilted too much, your brain will tell your hand to correct the tilt. Does that make sense? Good!
Have a sip of your pint, then let’s keep going!
How is automation applied?
When producing or shipping a product, you have many variables to control and monitor. Like our Guinness example, you need measurement, control, and actuation. The first part is simple. Instruments known as sensors take the measurements, then send the readings to the control.
Now, the controller depends on your application. In a smart home, for example, you can use a microprocessor like a Raspberry Pi. For industrial or process automation, you need a complex device like a programmable logic controller (PLC). The PLC acts as the brain of the process, deciding which actions to take and communicating with the actuators.
You have many types of actuators as well – pumps, pistons, rotors, and so on – and each performs a different action. If the PLC tells the actuators to change their actions, then the sensor measures the new values, sends them to the PLC, and the PLC decides what to do and sends commands to the actuators to stop or continue. And the whole process repeats in a closed loop. So that’s how automation works in the industry.
We have videos on automation applications, like the relationship between pressure measurement and French fries, or how Coriolis flow meters help beer flow underground in Belgium, if you want to check those out.
How does an automation engineer fit in?
An automation engineer sets the automation of a process. He or she must understand the process and its needs to select the appropriate instruments to monitor and control all the necessary variables.
This work includes choosing and programming a controller. At this stage, you have protocols, the languages spoken between instruments and PLC. Four main protocols cover most process automation applications – analog, HART, PROFIBUS PA, and FOUNDATION Fieldbus. More have begun to take hold, like EtherNet/IP, but we can talk about those in another article.
And let’s not forget the actuators, connected to the controller like the sensors but taking output from the controller instead of sending input. Got it so far?
Now you have the whole system connected and communicating. However, to monitor everything you also need a Human Machine Interface (HMI). And guess who develops it? You got it, the automation engineer. Basically, the HMI provides a graphic depiction of your system, showing all the variables of your process in real time. Also, the HMI will show warnings if something has gone awry.
We call this system SCADA, which means supervisory control and data acquisition. So, what does an automation engineer do? Develop SCADA systems. See? Piece of cake.
And while the above covers process automation, the same idea goes for other areas, like smart homes. You’ll have devices to monitor and control temperature, light, volume, or other variables. As I said earlier, you can use a Raspberry Pi as your controller or another microprocessor. You also have actuators, mostly relays here. And last but not least, you need an HMI to check the temperature of your bedroom, the lights in your bathroom, or the volume of your sound system. Same idea.
Where does an automation engineer work?
Automation engineering allows you to explore many fields. Obviously it includes all of process automation, but that sounds vague, so I’ll give you examples of industries where you can apply it. Off we go!
- chemical and petrochemical
- food and beverage
- oil and gas
- primaries and metals
- water and wastewater
- pharmaceutical and biochemical
- life sciences
Plenty of industries available in process automation alone. And you can do find more outside process automation, like home automation. There are companies that specialize in bringing comfort to your home.
Another field that exists in every profession is research. The rapid growth of technology makes the possibilities for new systems endless. If you’re keen on discovering new things, you might find this a good path to follow. Maybe you’ll perfect the self-driving car!
An automation engineer can also work with management. Engineering in general gives you good problem-solving skills. Therefore many engineers now work in management positions.
When selling components of an automated process, it helps a lot to have someone who really understands the product to sell it. Thus, many automation engineers also venture into sales.
As you can see, you can take many different paths after receiving your diploma. Whenever you need something to work automatically, you need an automation engineer.
Oh, almost forgot! You can also work in content marketing, writing articles about automation to help out other engineers or engineering students. Like we do here at Visaya! 🙂
How much does an automation engineer make?
Now we get into the subject that many of you were waiting for! Money! How much can an automation engineer make? Of course, salary depends on many factors, such as company size, field of work, country, and years of experience. But the website PayScale has some general numbers I can share with you.
According to PayScale, an automation engineer in Germany earns an average of 46,000 euros a year. The nationwide average automation engineer salary in the U.S. lies in the neighborhood of 74,000 dollars per year. In the UK, an automation engineer can earn 33,000 pounds per year. These values reflect the annual salary only. Many companies also offer benefits and even profit sharing, which can increase earnings.
What does it take to become an automation engineer?
So now you want to know which skills a person needs to pursue this career. As I said before, automation engineering covers many fields, including fields of study. You’ll need knowledge in computer science, electronics, and mechanical engineering, so you’d better like math, physics, and computers.
Another crucial skill is problem solving. Believe me, engineers face challenges on a near-daily basis, and you must solve them. And last but not least, an automation engineer should pay attention to details. Many issues in automation engineering have small yet specific causes, and you must be able to spot them.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has a list of qualities required to become an automation engineer. According to the BLS, an upcoming engineer should have:
- A firm understanding of software development and computer programming
- Equipment troubleshooting skills
- The ability to perform complex system tests
- Creative thinking and detail-oriented attention
- Excellent manual dexterity
- Strong communication skills
I hope that gives you a good overview of automation as a concept and what an automation engineer does. Quick recap! An automation engineer develops and monitors automatic processes using the three components of automation – measurement, control, and actuation.
Therefore, if you love technology, get along with math, physics, and computers, and enjoy challenges, then you have a great path before you! The industry could always use more good automation engineers, so you have a wonderful opportunity to build your career. There are many automation engineer jobs out there waiting for you!