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Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

(OP)
I'm a 32 yr old mechanical engineer (B.S. ME) working in the rotating equipment world. I work for an OEM building compressors for oil and gas / chemical industries. I have worked with aerodynamics, materials, stresses, etc.

I'd like to switch to a different role. A local tech college here offers classes on automation. I think it would be really neat to work with the automation equipment in manufacturing. I imagine the world of automation is only going to grow and innovate. I have zero experience with automation and do not deal with any controls.


A few questions:

-
Do you think adding a certification from a tech school would help me get a job within automation?
-
What engineering jobs exist within the automation industry? What would be a normal day to day experience?
-
Would I really need to go to a university in order to improve my resume enough or will a tech school work?
-
If you are working with automated equipment, are you able to work in different industries (food, medical, household products, etc)


Sorry if these questions show that I don't have a complete understanding of what I'm looking for. I'm kind of lost and just starting to do my research. I'm assuming there is someone maintaining and designing this equipment from an engineering position. I'm also assuming there is usually someone doing this on site, not contracting this out... maybe I'm wrong?

RE: Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

awhicker84,

I'm at a similar place in my career and also have a BSME. I design automated systems for oil and gas processing equipment, and I've never felt like I needed additional formal education (at least not for that part of my job). I think you should already have a decent background and understanding of automated systems with the BSME. Automation has very broad applications, so whatever toys you get to play with at the tech school might not even be close to what a potential employer is using. If you know the concepts, the deeper knowledge of the components, programming, tuning, etc. can all be part of OJT. BSME gets you in the door.

RE: Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

-
Do you think adding a certification from a tech school would help me get a job within automation?

Yes - it would help, but not always necessary. My degree is in Electrical Engineering (Power System), and I'm in automation now.
-
What engineering jobs exist within the automation industry? What would be a normal day to day experience?

They can be anything from maintenance (changing code in existing systems, or working with instrumentation), to design (coming up with ideas on how to control a single piece of equipment to a whole process unit). Normal day is like many other engineering jobs...but possibly with a lot more sitting. I've worked for Head Office engineering where we did the design for new plants, or migrating control systems and most of that was sitting in the office performing design (a lot of documentation), then heading to the field for construction, testing, startups. I've worked in plants where I would be designing for smaller issues to improve quality or safety, still sitting at a desk, but a lot of field work. Both were very interesting and continue to be so.
-
Would I really need to go to a university in order to improve my resume enough or will a tech school work?

Depends what you want to do: If you want to be more hands on, like a technician, then a tech school would be fine. Plus, with your engineering degree also, a full university degree may not be needed.
-
If you are working with automated equipment, are you able to work in different industries (food, medical, household products, etc)

Yes: Food, Pharmaceutical, chemical, refining, agriculture, auto...just about anything...

One warning...and this might be for engineering now: Over the last 15 years, I've seen a lot of the automation jobs go oversees. The integration firms (code/configuration firms that do a lot of the programming) send the work overseas for cheaper labor. So, the operating firms see this, and think they can start reducing their engineering force, hire the integration firm to support them, to save money.

______________________________________________________________________________
This is normally the space where people post something insightful.

RE: Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

(OP)
Thanks much!

Interesting that the jobs are sent overseas. I was looking into automation partially because I thought it would be required to stay near the plants.

So maybe I'm looking more for a technician role. I'd really like to be up and walking around more than sitting. I've done my fair share of sitting. The tech college is only $80 / month. I will need start classes there and see what I think.

For a while I was a repair engineer at a repair site. We repaired rotating equipment, upgraded, modified, etc for the customer specific issues. That was pretty good. I'd like a bit more challenge though. We started seeing the same problems over and over again. Our job really became BOM creation, logistics, communication, etc with only about 20% being actual engineering problem solving. Maybe that's typical in other fields?


FoxRox,

Getting in the door is exactly my problem right now. I see a lot of postings for jobs wanting 10 yrs experience w/ XYZ. I submit and am immediately turned away because I don't meet the filter. A great example is a nearby composites plant. I have no experience in composites. I'd love to learn, but my resume is filtered out before I even have a chance to explain myself. I feel like I need something besides a BSME.

-
Were you really able to get a job with no experience based on your BSME? Did you know someone before you applied? Was it an internal job switch?

Controlnovice,

Do you see a lot of opportunity to contract your skill set?







RE: Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

Controlnovice's points are all valid.

I am an ME in automation. I have very very little experience with programming and controls, by choice- in my role it simply isn't necessary and frankly it just doesn't interest me all that much.

In the automation world (assuming you don't want to work at a plant) there are basically two ways to go: work for an integrator, or work for a manufacturer.

Manufacturers such as Kawasaki, Fanuc, ABB, Kuka, Comau, Motoman, Yaskawa, etc etc etc all have heavy presence in the US and employ a lot of engineers. They manufacture robot arms and other equipment, and sell it either directly to integrators, or directly to customers. Some of these companies do some of their own integration, some do not and simply sell arms.

The other alternative is to work for an integrator. This is a company that does system-level design work using major components from third parties. They typically don't do any design of major components- they buy arms and PLCs and tools and whatever from other companies and assemble them into a system. There may be some light ME work at an integrator- things like base plates and brackets and guarding, etc, but the pool of jobs at an integrator is going to be very controls heavy.

In short, my suggestion would be that if you want to get into automation, just start applying for jobs. The major hubs are going to be Michigan and California. You may need to relocate if you want a lot of options.

The real question you have to answer for yourself is what role you want to fill- do you like doing pure mechanical design? If you do, you can get an automation job right now. If you want to get away from mechanical design and into controls, my suggestion would be to get a job as a mechanical designer (making what skills you want to develop clear to your future employer) and learn on the job.

Couple of reasons for this:

1) Every major company has a slightly different way of doing things. Programming a Kawasaki is not exactly the same as programming Fanuc which is not the same as programming Kuka etc. Most tech schools, if they have any arms at all, typically strike up a deal with one company and use their equipment exclusively. Which means if you train there, you're get familiar with Fanuc robots and Allen Bradley PLCs, which is great- but may not be useful depending on where you land. Having this narrow experience may actually eliminate you from contention for some jobs.

2) You're going to learn actual useful things faster on the job than you will at school. Guys fresh from tech school are certainly better off on the controls side than guys with no exposure, but a guy from tech school still needs a lot of training before they are ready to get shot out into the field. Not having a tech school certificate is not going to hold you back. The jobs are there, especially now.

In short, if you like mechanical design, start applying for jobs. Save the money and time in tech school. If you don't like mechanical design, skip tech school and make it clear to your new employer that you want to develop your controls side skills.

RE: Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

(OP)
So it isn't common for there to be engineers on site to repair / modify etc equipment on site?

Do the companies using automation equipment usually call in a vendor / OEM for repairs?

RE: Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

Yes: Most of the plants will have some core team of engineers for maintenance and small projects (the last two companies scope of a small project was < $250k US). The automation/controls engineer will troubleshoot issues, scope out a small project, write POs to bring in others when the job is too big because they are spending time fixing stuff, determine what instruments to purchase, develop long term plans for migrating the obsolete equipment and PLCs/DCSs, some programming, modifications, repairs (although if it's a union plant, you can't touch anything as an engineer).

Some companies will have a head office for engineers to design large projects. In my experience, most of these engineers (I've been one for a long time) design the layout for the plant at a higher level, write the scopes of work, etc... For automation/controls: the engineer would write a hardware specification, control narratives (a window into the process), a functional specification, and hand it off for bids. Then the engineer will work with the bid winner on more detailed work....but without doing the detail work. Once the system is built, they will test the system, and go to the field to help with startup.

Small companies will hire contractors directly. I'm a consultant now, and working on a Pharmacuetical project. Many, many meetings discussing scope and project issues, and I've only met one person from the customer. All of their project personnel are contractors.

All in all, it's a great field to be in. Unlike some of the 'hard' engineering jobs (electrical, mechanical, civil, etc... where it's easier to hire a contractor because they don't need to know the chemical/pharm/food processes...they just need to know their field of engineering), 'soft' engineering jobs (chemical, process control, etc...) are more desirable to keep on staff to retain the process knowledge.

______________________________________________________________________________
This is normally the space where people post something insightful.

RE: Mechanical Rotating Equipment engineer looking to change to Automation

Quote (awhicker84 (Mechanical) )

So it isn't common for there to be engineers on site to repair / modify etc equipment on site?

Do the companies using automation equipment usually call in a vendor / OEM for repairs?

That varies from company to company and depends on what kind of systems they are using. My company has in-house PLC guys. My brother is an automation technician at a small company where he started working in high school as an "intern". I gave him some pointers and he took it upon himself to go balls-deep in automation. The tasks they were giving him were pointless and anybody could have done him. I told him to go down to their lab and ask if they needed any help, then report back to me with what they told him. I told him he could make his mark there if he wanted it badly enough. I gave him a few basic pointers and the rest is history. Within 6 weeks, he had some of their long-retired materials test equipment running on arduino microcontrollers through circuits and programs that he designed and wrote himself. Nobody else there was on his level at the time. He goes to school for it now at a tech school. He had a background in electronics (Example: we built a CRT oscilloscope out of an old television when he was 14 and I was 16. It was cool until our screen and amp caught fire).

I think you could get enough experience to get into the automation world without going back to school. With public libraries, free highschool education, and the invention of the internet, you can literally learn anything you want to for next to zero dollars as long as you have the desire to learn and value education enough to never relent. Learning how to self-educate is a very necessary and constant part of automation. However, going back to school is the most assured way to get into the field. Its also interesting to study that subject. If I ever work in an engineering department concerned with anything other than combustion engines, it will either be air compressors or automation.

"Formal education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed." ~ Joseph Stalin

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