We Need More Automation Engineering Degrees

I think its hard to overstate the rising importance of automation today. Automation in manufacturing has been having an impact on society for a long time now, but in recent years, the pace of technological progress has been accelerating, which is accelerating the affects those changes are having on the types of jobs that are available. As with so many other areas, our education system is lagging. This article really hits the nail on the head:

When will we see more four-year U.S. degrees in automation engineering?

The whole article is worth reading, and describes what I’ve been saying for years:

“If Americans want to strengthen our manufacturing base, we need more engineering graduates who are focused on automation. Many schools have degrees that touch on the needs of manufacturing, but they don’t really do a deep dive into automation.”

While the article is focused on manufacturing, automation is spilling over into so many other areas. I’m telling you, if you are a young person and want to be guaranteed employment, go into automation.

The main point that really gets at my frustration:

“From my experience, many members of the higher education establishment view automation as an associate’s degree, technician-level program. They are underestimating the complexity of designing and integrating automated systems on a plant-wide basis. Automation is more than just programming or electrical engineering or mechanical engineering. It is all of these and more.”

Modern automation needs to be understood as an entire engineering discipline on its own. The subject includes mechanical and electrical engineering, programming, higher math concepts, technical knowledge of sensors and actuators, and often databases, computer networking and various internet related technologies, and more. Systems integration requires engineering design, and cannot be accomplished at the two-year technician level of training. The view of automation as a technician wiring some relays together or maybe writing some simple ladder logic is laughably outdated.

These last few quotes describe my personal experience fairly well:

“A large percentage of the recently graduated college engineers we have hired over the past five to 10 years did not specifically set out to become automation engineers…”

“Automation-related degrees aren’t adequately described. I visited one website that explains all the different possible college degrees. Automation engineering was listed as a subset of industrial engineering, which is not where most people interested in an automation career would look. It also said that pursuing a degree in automation engineering would “open up a number of career opportunities in maintenance, repair and robotics.” Again, this may be what the associate degree would prepare you for, but not the bachelor’s degree.”

“Maintenance and repair” is misleading, and would not have attracted me to automation. This was written by someone who does not understand what automation is, what it does, or how its created. Maintenance and repair of existing systems is certainly important and part of automation engineering, but someone has to DESIGN the systems first. It really is the difference between being an automotive engineer and being an auto mechanic. Both are required for the system to work.

“The only related offering in that university’s entire engineering program was one class on control system theory. Talking to one of our engineers who had taken the course, he said that it had no real relevance to the automation and controls work he is now doing for our company.”

I also had exactly one class on control system theory, and it also had almost no relevance to the work I am doing now. I strongly agree with this conclusion:

“We also have to get over the notion that automation can only be learned with hands-on experience on the job, and that it’s not possible to teach it in college. With the proper investment in labs, it can be taught, and automation engineers can come out of college without large gaps in their automation abilities (gaps either on the electrical, mechanical or programming sides).”

By working in automation, I know I have a biased viewpoint. However, what I see from my limited view within a small, niche corner of the industry, is a rising tidal wave of demand for automation. That demand won’t look like industrial automation historically has, going as far back as the 1950s.  Technology is changing rapidly, and enabling new applications and and entire categories of knowledge that could not have even been conceived before recent advances. Previously separate disciplines in mechanical, electrical, computer engineering, are joining with more modern mechatronics, robotics, data management and analysis, computer networks, software and web technology platforms. The knowledge required for modern automation systems is beyond cross-disciplinary, and in my view, has become its own entire field of engineering.

Gaining the knowledge required to work in automation is often prohibitively difficult, both via the traditional education system, and for those trying to self teach. Automated mechatronic systems are showing up in more and more applications outside of manufacturing, and the complexity  and scope of industrial automation is rapidly increasing along with demand. We need more automation engineering degrees.

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