Defining the Role of the Automation Engineer


What is Automation?

The International Society of Automation (ISA) defines automation as “the creation and application of technology to monitor and control the production and delivery of products and services.” Automation encompasses virtually all of industry; for example:

  • Manufacturing including food and pharmaceutical, chemical and petroleum, pulp and paper
  • Transportation including automotive, aerospace, and rail
  • Utilities including water and wastewater, oil and gas, electric power, and telecommunications
  • Defense including weapons systems, unmanned aircraft (UAV), logistics and communications
  • Facility operations including security, environmental control, energy management, safety, and building automation
  • And, most recently and importantly, the cybersecurity of our utility infrastructures and industries.

Automation crosses all functions within industry from installation, integration, and maintenance to design, procurement, and management (including most significantly automation project management).

What is an Automation Engineer?

Automation as a profession has suffered somewhat from a lack of recognition. Automatic control and automated systems have existed, in basic forms, for as long as industrialized manufacturing has existed. Automatic control first became prominent the 1940’s with the advent of Foxboro and Bailey process level, temperature, pressure and flow controllers which were made up of analog pneumatic control elements. These were called “Industrial Instruments”. Instrumentation and control engineers organized the Instrument Society of America (ISA) in 1945 to further the Instrument Engineer profession.

With the explosive growth of solid state electronics, digital electronics and computer technologies, the development of the Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), Programmable Automation Controller (PAC), Distributed Control System (DCS) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems followed from the 1970’s to the present; along with the related operator interfaces, precision digital sensors, digital motor controls and many software applications related to real-time manufacturing data and analytics. Of late, the Internet of Things (IOT) is bringing automation to our doorstep, literally with home automation devices. In 2008 ISA was reinvented to be the International Society of Automation. Along with the development of the Automation Federation, the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) and a society within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) dedicated to the technical aspects involved in Automation, the Automation Engineer profession was ultimately realized.

Automation engineers work with control systems, robotics and expert systems, telemetry and communications, electro-optics, cybersecurity, process measurement and control, data collection and distribution, sensors, wireless applications, systems integration and test measurement. By definition, automation engineers design, program, simulate and test automated machinery and processes in order to complete exact tasks.

The Automation Competency Model, developed by the Automation Federation, describes the knowledge and skill base for Automation Engineers. The model is made up of nine tiers: personal effectiveness competencies, academic competencies, workplace competencies, industry-wide technical competencies, automation technical competencies, occupation-specific knowledge areas, occupation-specific technical competencies, occupation-specific requirements, and management competencies.

At present, the great number of automation engineers have found their way into the career through other disciplines including Electrical, Mechanical and Chemical Engineering, along with Information Technology (IT) and programming knowledge. However the technical complexity and scope of Automation has expanded such that it must become a destination that is pursued by engineers trained specific to the field. A number of universities now offer degrees in Automation Engineering and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) recognizes Automation Engineering and Automation Engineering Technology as core degree programs.

What assets will an Automation Engineer bring to your organization?

It seems apparent that the demands on manufacturing for increased efficiency, lower production and operating costs and increased precision and quality that we have seen, will only continue and grow. Equally as important, improved real-time factory-floor data collection and analysis of information is needed to improve operational performance. This will be accomplished by increasing and improving the automated infrastructure in manufacturing processes. Integration (the interconnection of hardware and software to achieve seamless operation and maintenance) of automated systems has and will continue to be one of the primary sources of this desired increase in efficiency.

The breadth of knowledge of the automation engineer is much broader than nearly any other engineering discipline. Automation engineers will be the key players in delivering the technical knowledge and skills to support our future needs in manufacturing.