Guide to Industrial Automation -- Occupations and Trades

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There are quite a few different kinds of employment opportunities in the automation field. Manufacturing facilities are becoming increasingly more automated to improve production, vendors are looking for knowledgeable people to sell their technical products, and OEMs employ skilled labor to design, maintain, and build their products. System integrators and machine builders hire engineers and tradespeople to assist companies in solving their automation problems.

1. Engineering

Engineering is a discipline that applies scientific knowledge in the fields of physics and chemistry, materials, mathematics, and logic to solve real-world problems. Engineers use the tools they acquire in the study of scientific and mathematical principals to invent, design, and create physical solutions to problems.

Creativity is a major factor in the application of science to the physical world. The design and development of structures, machines, and processes require a full understanding of the materials and physics of the components and devices used. Behavior of machinery and processes must be forecast under all operating conditions. Personnel and equipment safety, the economics of designing, building and operating equipment, and ethical practice of the engineering profession are important elements in the training of engineers.

Licensing requirements vary depending on the engineering discipline and its application. Formal designations include the Professional Engineer (PE) and Chartered Engineer license. The basic requirement for an engineer is the completion of a bachelor of science degree from an accredited university.

Engineering disciplines are divided into a number of subfields.

There are basic math and science classes that all engineers must take, including calculus, physics, and chemistry. In addition, most engineering courses require a certain amount of cross-training from other disciplines as well as general college coursework.

1.1 Mechanical

Mechanical engineers design assemblies and systems to accomplish automated tasks. They are often hired to supervise a cell of machines in a manufacturing plant or upgrade a production line. Their job usually includes the use of design and CAD software, both two- and three-dimensional. Design processes will often involve timing charts to analyze machine movement and the relationships of components to each other.

Basic mechanical engineering coursework includes solid mechanics, instrumentation and measurement, strength of materials, hydraulics and pneumatics, combustion, and product design.

Mechanical engineers also study fluid flow and thermodynamics.

Cross-disciplinary training often includes some computer programming, electrical, industrial, and possibly chemical engineering classes. Mechanical engineers are often involved with the specification of sensors and the effects of temperature or chemicals on different materials or manufacturing processes. Specializations include robotics, transport and logistics, cryogenics, biomechanics, vibration, automotive engineering, and more.

Knowledge of components such as motors, bearings, linear actuators, gearing, and various other elements, as described in previous sections, is critical. The ability to specify and size framing and piping components and select appropriate material and components is an important skill. Mechanical engineers and designers rely heavily on manufacturers' specification sheets and their own knowledge of a range of components. Vendor training can also be of great value.

1.2 Electrical and Controls

Electrical engineers are often involved in systems design and software for automation equipment. In manufacturing, they are usually involved in modifying code in the systems controller, specifying and adding sensors, modifying HMI screens, and adding motor or power circuits for line upgrades. In system integration or machine-building companies, controls engineers design electrical control panels and draw schematics, flowchart, and write control code. When designing machines, they work very closely with their mechanical counterparts for a fully integrated machine design. They are usually responsible for the start-up and debug of machines also.

The curriculum for electrical engineering includes the basic science and math coursework described previously. In addition, mechanical classes in statics and dynamics, thermodynamics, and materials science are usually required. Engineering economics and engineering ethics are also generally part of the program. After studying general electrical design and concepts, electrical engineers usually specialize in a subdiscipline, such as power, electronics, digital circuits and microelectronics, optics, controls, plasma engineering, communications, or computers.

For OEM equipment, knowledge of IC design can be important.

Some OEM equipment uses proprietary circuit boards and "System on a Chip" components in the design of their equipment. Printed circuit board design and layout can be an important element in machine control design.

For process systems, electrical and controls engineers need to know about power distribution and P&ID diagrams. They also often end up in niche fields, becoming specialists in fields like robotics, vision, or integrated servo systems. A good foundation in IT skills is often important as plants become more integrated between the factory floor and production planning and management. Software and computer programming is a required skill for all electrical engineering disciplines.

Because controls engineers often take the lead in the start-up of equipment, they must also have a good mechanical background.

Pneumatic design and specification are often performed by electrical or controls engineers. Motor sizing involves the evaluation of mechanical systems and machine dynamics.

1.3 Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering

Industrial engineers determine the most effective way to use people, equipment, and materials to produce a product. They are often involved in planning and efficiency studies of complex systems and production procedures. Ergonomics and safety are also areas that industrial engineers often have responsibility for. Although not as often involved in the functional design of machinery, industrial engineers are usually the ones who decide where machines will be located in relation to one another for the most efficient process flow.

Material movement, flow, and storage are also issues addressed by industrial engineers. Processes are often a combination of manual and automated procedures that must be analyzed and optimized.

Industrial engineers are often trained in Six Sigma process improvement and other business-oriented disciplines. Operations management is one of the underlying concepts behind industrial engineering. As such, a good knowledge of commercial enterprise computer software and platforms is important. The use of quantitative methods and statistics in the analysis of industrial operations is an important tool for industrial engineers.

The industrial engineering curriculum includes the essential math and science classes required for all engineering disciplines in addition to specialized courses in management, systems theory, ergonomics, safety, statistics, and economics.

Manufacturing engineers direct and coordinate processes for production. They are involved with the initial concept of how a product will be produced through the full implementation of a production line. The manufacturing engineering curriculum is very similar to that of a mechanical engineer. Manufacturing engineers are often formally trained in another discipline, such as industrial or mechanical engineering, but are designated manufacturing engineers because of the position they occupy in the industry.

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) provides certifications for manufacturing engineers in the United States.

Candidates for the Certified Manufacturing Technologist (CMfgT) certificate must have four years of combined education and manufacturing-related work experience. A three-hour, 130-question exam covering mathematics, manufacturing processes, automation, and manufacturing management is administered to qualified candidates for the certification. The Certified in Manufacturing Engineering (CMfgE) qualification requires eight years of combined education and manufacturing-related work experience. A passing grade in a three-hour, 150-question exam, which covers more in depth topics of the CMfgT, is required for this certification.

SME also provides additional certifications for engineering management, Six Sigma, and lean manufacturing. Engineers from many different disciplines often obtain these certifications in addition to their formal training.

1.4 Chemical and Chemical Process Engineers

Chemical engineering involves the design and operation of plants and machinery in the chemical- and bulk-processing areas, as well as converting raw materials and chemicals into other forms. These disciplines are often subdivided into chemical process engineering and chemical product engineering. The processing of materials in solid, bulk, liquid, and gaseous forms is the focus of process engineering, while the individual unit reactions of substances and elements with each other for commercial use is the subject of product engineering.

Chemical reaction engineering concerns the management of processes and conditions to ensure a safe and predictable chemical reaction. Models are used to simulate processes and predict reactor performance. Process design involves activities such as drying, crystallization, evaporation, and other reactant preparation steps.

Conversion processes are also designed for nitration, oxidization, and other material effects. These involve biochemical, thermochemical, and other processes. Transport of materials involves the effects of heat transfer, mass transfer, and fluid dynamics as substances or compounds are moved from one place to another.

In addition to standard engineering course requirements, chemical engineers take various science and engineering courses, including physical chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, biochemistry, reactor design, reactor kinetics, fluid flow and thermodynamics, statistics, instrumentation, and environmental engineering classes. Chemical engineers are involved in designing and optimizing processes for commercial product production. As such, they need a good background in mechanical and electrical disciplines. Process engineering involves the application of heating and cooling, pressure and vacuum, bulk movement, design of reactor vessels, and piping. P&ID diagrams are used to describe the processes in terms of components and fluid flow/ airflow, which chemical engineers are usually familiar with.

In industrial automation, petrochemical-related processing is a major employer of chemical engineers-both in the extraction and refining fields and in plastics. Biological sciences, waste management companies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers also commonly hire chemical engineers. Most process-oriented companies, such as nonwoven web converting, paper manufacturing, chemical compounding, and consumer product manufacturing firms, also use chemical engineers for process and product design.

1.5 Other Engineering Disciplines and Job Titles

Within most companies that use or implement automation, there are usually a variety of job titles associated with engineering. Plant managers, for instance, are often from the engineering field, since problem solving is an important skill for both job functions.

Quality engineers may come from another engineering discipline also, although industrial and systems engineering programs teach many of the elements of quality programs. Six Sigma and lean manufacturing techniques are used by quality engineers to make processes more efficient and reduce defects. Total quality management (TQM) is a technique used to continuously improve a product or service. The production part approval process (PPAP) is another element of quality engineering.

Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary field of engineering that focuses on how complex engineering projects should be designed and managed over the life cycle of a project. Issues such as logistics, the coordination of different teams, and automatic control of machinery become more difficult when dealing with large, complex projects. Systems engineering deals with work processes and tools to handle such projects, and it overlaps with both technical and human centered disciplines, such as control engineering, industrial engineering, organizational studies, and project management. Some universities offer advanced degrees in systems engineering. Systems engineers are generally employed by large companies or government related (DoD, DoE) manufacturers.


Applications engineers do a lot of the pre-engineering on projects.

The task of an applications engineer is to come up with a way to perform a given task in the quickest or most cost-effective way.

Vendors and manufacturers often employ applications engineers to support the sales staff and provide value to the buyers of their products. They also often perform technical training in this role.

Machine builders and integrators use applications engineers to put together quotes for machines and systems. They will often use in-house developed tools to estimate costs for parts and labor and 3-D software to develop layouts and concepts for machines or process lines that will be embedded in quote documents.

Applications engineers often spend a lot of time visiting plant sites and seeing how things work. They usually have many years of experience and often come from a design background.


Sales engineers are usually employed by vendors and manufacturers of automation equipment. They often also act as applications engineers, helping customers determine the best application of their technical product. Sales engineers often attend factory training on their products and can be of immense help to design engineers in coming up with the best way to solve a particular problem.

Sales engineers often carry or have access to samples of their product, which can be tested or examined by the customer. They also may have software demos that can be used to illustrate the application of the product. It goes without saying that people skills and good written and verbal communication are important parts of a sales engineer's toolbox.

Training programs in sales techniques and sales management are available from many third-party companies that specialize in the sales training field. There are also many excellent books available.

Public speaking and communications skills training are also available through associations and companies.

Project Engineers

Project engineers usually perform a lead role in the actual implementation of an automation project. Not only are they responsible for the overall design; they also often have to interface with the customer regularly. Mechanical and electrical project engineers typically team up to implement a quoted project. As such, they are often well versed in each other's disciplines.

Project engineers usually have experience as a design engineer prior to taking project responsibility. They are usually proficient in CAD or design software and knowledgeable about many products.

Design Engineers

Design engineers work with CAD software within their discipline to create mechanical or electrical schematics for fabrication. They need to be adept at their design software platform and able to examine designs with a critical eye for possible mistakes. Mechanical design engineers usually work with 3-D modeling software to create solid models that can be used to simulate machine motions. Drawings are often then converted to 2-D printouts of components for fabrication or converted to a CNC compatible file, such as G-code or STEP-NC.

Electrical design engineers take design elements, such as mechanical layouts, I/O lists, and machine specifications, and convert them into electrical schematics. They are also involved in the specification and selection of electrical components. Along with project engineers, design engineers are responsible for ensuring that specifications for an automation project are followed.

Project Managers

Project managers are responsible for adherence to the schedule and budget of a contract. While they often come from an engineering background, they usually have experience in a business field also.

Financial spreadsheets and scheduling software are important tools of the trade. Interfacing with the customer and generating issues lists, working with purchasing for expediting, and keeping management apprised of project status are also important project management tasks. Project managers often perform supervisory tasks for teams of project engineers and act as a liaison between the customer and the engineering team.

Project management certification and training often includes many of the lean manufacturing and Six Sigma techniques discussed later in this guide. The Project Management Institute (PMI) administers the certification of project managers through training and testing.

Much of a project manager's core training information is contained in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), authored by the PMI. Certifications for project managers include Project Management Professional (PMP), Program Management Professional (PgMP), PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP), PMI Risk Management Professional (PMI-RMP), and PMI Scheduling Professional (PMI-SP).

2. Trades

The physical implementation of automation equipment and machinery is usually done by skilled tradespeople with extensive experience in their field. Often, people who work on equipment have to make "design-on-the-fly" decisions as a machine is being built or modified.

This requires knowledge and experience in a variety of fields, including fabrication techniques, materials, and sensor applications.

2.1 Mechanical

Manufacturing and Machining

Machinists and operators of programmable CNC equipment produce components for automated machinery. They are usually trained on a variety of equipment, ranging from mills, lathes, and grinders to water cutting and sheet metal forming equipment. They work off detailed prints or "details" provided in CAD format from engineering.

In the case of highly automated CNC machinery, they have to be able to program the machining center to produce the desired part.

Other titles and job descriptions that are related to machinists include tool and die makers, mold makers, pattern makers, and others. A person who produces mechanical parts is sometimes referred to as a "turner," while a person who assembles them together can be referred to as a "fitter." Setup of machining equipment is critical to the precision and accuracy of the finished part. Jigging and fixturing contributes to a machine staying within the tolerances that a part is designed to fit. If parts are not set up and fixtured properly, expensive material can be destroyed. Precise measurement of parts using a variety of tools and instruments is an important factor in the accurate fabrication of parts. The use of tools, such as micrometers, calipers, and coordinate measurement machines (CMMs), is an integral part of a machinist's training.

Formal training programs for machinists are usually offered by vocational schools and community colleges. Two-year degree programs in machine technology focus on theory and technical skills.

Classes include lathe and milling operations, CNC machining, precision measurement, blueprint reading, math, and quality control.

Trainees often apprentice in machine shops under the supervision of skilled machinists. Certifications for machinists include degrees from accredited programs and testing from societies, such as the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association (

Knowledge of the properties of the materials they are working with is essential to a good machinist. Metals, such as steel and aluminum, as well as materials such as UHMW, Delrin, or Teflon, all have their own associated techniques required to form them as well as associated tool speeds. Knowledge of treatments, such as anodizing, heat -treating, and forming, is commonly used to shape or change the properties of materials.


When building machinery, assemblers put together the various components of a machine according to a set of prints. Aluminum extrusion is often used for guarding-or even for the whole machine- and knowledge of different types of connections, such as brackets, end fasteners, and anchor fasteners, is important. A variety of fastening techniques, such as using bolts, screws, dowel pins, or welding, is employed to mount parts to the frame of the machine.

Mechanical actuators and linear or rotary motion components also each have their own associated assembly techniques.

Pneumatic and hydraulic plumbing and routing, conveyor assembly, and even a machining background can all be helpful skills in this field. Assemblers are often also skilled in machine wiring.

When machinery has already been built, millwrights or other maintenance personnel generally perform other tasks associated with working on automation equipment.


Machine frames and piping systems are often welded for stability.

Welding techniques are discussed in depth in Section 5. Stick welding or SMAW is a technique that cannot be easily automated and is only applicable to manual welding. MIG, or wire welding, is also often used in manual applications.

Other techniques closely related to welding include plasma cutting, brazing, heat control and metallurgy, test methods, and safety. nondestructive evaluation (NDE), also known as nondestructive testing, is often used on welds to check for lack of fusion of the weld to the base metal, cracks or porosity within the weld, and variations in weld density. Techniques for testing include X-rays, ultrasonic testing, liquid penetrant testing, and eddy current testing. Welders should be familiar with these techniques.

Welders often attend training schools and require certification for their trade. The American Welding Society (AWS) has certification programs for testing procedures used on structural steel, petroleum pipelines, sheet metal, and chemical refinery industries. AWS can also test to company supplied or noncode welding specifications.

Certification programs include the Certified Welder Program (CW), Certified Welding Engineer Program (CWENG), and Certified Welding Inspector Program (CWI). Certification is also available for robotic arc welding. Welding is subject to inspections and testing on a per-piece basis and costs more if done improperly. Like machinists, welders also require a solid background in the properties and behavior of metals.


When moving and installing large machinery, millwrights and riggers often perform most of the work. Operating equipment like forklifts and cranes is an important part of this. Their job requires a thorough knowledge of the load-bearing capabilities of the equipment they use, as well as an understanding of blueprints and technical instructions. Another common name for a millwright is a rigger.

Millwrights must be able to read blueprints and schematic drawings to determine work procedures and to construct foundations for and to assemble, dismantle, and overhaul machinery and equipment. They must be able to use hand and power tools and direct workers engaged in such endeavors. The use of lathes, milling machines, and grinders may be required to make customized parts or repairs. In the course of work, millwrights are required to move, assemble, and install machinery and equipment such as shafting, precision bearings, gearboxes, motors, mechanical clutches, conveyors, and tram rails, using hoists, pulleys, dollies, rollers, and trucks. Additionally, a millwright may also perform all duties of general laborer, pipefitter, carpenter, and electrician. A millwright may also perform some of the duties of a welder, such as arc welding, MIG welding, and oxyacetylene cutting.

Millwrights are also involved in routine tasks, such as machinery lubrication, bearing replacement, seal replacement, cleaning of parts during an overhaul, and preventative maintenance.

2.2 Electrical

Panel Building

Panel building involves the mounting of electrical components to the backplane of a metal enclosure and the wiring of these components.

Panel layout drawings and schematic diagrams are used to lay out the components in a prescribed manner. Adherence to the National Electrical Code and customer specifications is a critical part of the process. Electrical panels take many different forms and contain a variety of different types of components. Elements-from PLCs and other controllers to motor starters and servo drives-may be mounted in the panel. Voltages from 5 or 24VDC to 480VAC or higher may be present in the same enclosure, and great care must be taken to keep these separated.

Mounting techniques include riveting, drilling, tapping, and cutting or punching holes in the metal enclosure to mount rectangular components. Wiring involves labeling of wiring conductors, use of ferrules to prevent the splaying or birdcaging of stripped wires, and termination of wires and cables to terminal blocks or component terminals. Spade and ring terminals are often crimped to the ends of wires for termination.

Soldering is an important skill for a panel builder. Wires may be attached to circuit boards or plug connectors this way, and a good connection is critical.

Routing of wires and cables through wireway- typically plastic with "fingers" or tabs to allow routing through the sides-is an important wire management element. Ensuring that components are mounted straight, labels are legible and in the same direction, and wires are formed into neat bends is another important aesthetic part of panel building. A panel-building operation in progress is shown in Fig. 1 Tools used by a panel builder include wire strippers, crimpers, screwdrivers, and a host of other hand tools. There are also various special-purpose tools, including hole punches, DIN rail shears or cutters, and label printers that are specific to wiring and control panels.

Panel builders typically learn their craft through experience or training programs at some large manufacturers. Unlike with machinists, welders, and electricians, there are no formal training schools for panel building.


The electrician trade involves wiring of buildings, machines, and process equipment. This is differentiated from linemen, who work on electrical utility distribution systems at higher voltages. Electricians often concentrate in three different general categories: residential, commercial, and industrial wiring. In the industrial automation and manufacturing fields, electricians fall into the industrial grouping.

Industrial electricians are responsible for facility wiring and maintenance and often work on high-voltage distribution bus bars mounted on the ceiling. Knowledge of factory power distribution systems and switchgear is part of an industrial electrician's tool kit.

Electricians typically perform the external wiring of machinery.

They route wiring from the control enclosure to the various motors, sensors, and other electrical devices on a machine or line. This wire or cable may be run in conduit, emt, cable tray, metal wireway, or even directly strapped to the frame of the machine, depending on the requirement.

FIG. 1 Panel building.

Training for electricians usually involves an apprenticeship under the general supervision of a master electrician and the direct supervision of a journeyman electrician. Electricians often attend two years of vocational school or community college for training in electrical theory and the National Electric Code. Electricians are usually licensed, but for wiring of machines, this is usually not a requirement. Licensing is generally performed in the United States at the state level, while enforcement is generally undertaken on a local level.

Electricians may often build control panels, but panel building and machine wiring are entirely different skills. In an automation environment, electricians must also be familiar with pneumatics and hydraulics, as they may be the ones who route air hoses and hydraulic piping on a machine or production line.

Knowledge of the National Electrical Code, wiring techniques, and devices and a familiarity with various hand tools are necessary skills for electricians. Wire strippers, cable cutters, and multimeters or volt-ohm meters (VOMs) are standard tools for electricians.

Knowledge of electricity and power distribution, as well as various conduit bending and connecting techniques, is important. In addition to safety issues associated with working at heights and with power tools, electricians must always be aware of the hazards of working with electricity.

Instrumentation Technicians

In process control facilities, instrumentation is a key element in the monitoring and control of production. Maintenance and calibration of devices and troubleshooting of systems is the job of specialized technicians well versed in electronic, pneumatic, and hydraulic systems. Centralized monitoring of control loops is often accomplished with DCSs. Signals are wired to and from this central point from widely separated locations. This wiring network often involves intermediate control and junction points as well as communication network-based I/O.

Local display of pressure and flow is often accomplished with mechanical gauges. Some gauges must be placed in-line with the process flow, while others are plumbed parallel and may have pneumatic tubing or piping interfaces. Mechanical interfacing is almost always an element of the instrumentation process.

Technicians must be able to interface with valves and instrumentation through SCADA, HMI, or other monitoring software to determine the causes of process problems. The ability to read and modify P&ID diagrams and electrical schematics are important skills.

Calibration of instrumentation must be accomplished on a periodic schedule and records carefully maintained. Mechanical aptitude is also important, as pipefitting and welding can often be required.

Instrumentation technicians and other process control personnel often undergo extensive safety training and usually require certification.

Training programs are generally available in community colleges, vocational schools, and larger process-focused corporations.

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