Troubleshooting Skills Top Training Needs

Feb. 13, 2007
Training of automation technicians, technologists and engineers should encompass mechatronics’ four facets mechanical engineering/technology, electronics, process control and computer science states Keith Campbell, principal of Campbell Management Services, Palmyra, Pa., and former director of automation and integration for The Hershey Co., the Harrisburg, Pa.-based chocolate and snack food manufacturer.

Is there an indispensable skill that automation technicians, technologists and engineers should have? Basic troubleshooting, declares Dr. Ken Ryan, director of manufacturing automation research and education in the Center for Automation and Motion Control (CAMC) at Alexandria Technical College, Alexandria, Minn. ( But he says today’s students seem to have difficulty conceptualizing a problem and then deciding where to start. The challenge? “How do you teach students an analytical approach to root-cause analysis—to cut a problem in half, and then cut that in half?”

In CAMC two-year-degree programs, he seeks to get students to conceptualize automated processes from a system level and then apply troubleshooting paradigms to that system. This view becomes even more critical with remotely connected automation systems, Ryan believes. That’s because, he says, a technician/technologist must take what’s seen on an operator display-terminal screen and then visualize the process represented by those data.The most difficult skill in remote monitoring is turning data into information,” he declares. “If you lack that essential skill of being able to conceptualize the system with which you’re dealing, then all you’re going to be getting is data.” In manufacturing’s technician/technologist/engineer progression, technicians primarily are either maintenance or sales technicians, Ryan says. He defines a technician as someone who “understands and can fix basic automation technology.”However, technologists can assess the appropriateness of the technology and can manage its implementation, he states. And it’s in the technologists’ arena where students have the greatest latitude, Ryan indicates. “They have a broader skill set than the technicians—more management and assessment skills.” To him, that means those graduates can work for systems integrators, as well as in maintenance management roles across a broad range of industries.What skill most benefits technologists? It’s their ability to evaluate automation technology, he thinks. “We constantly ask them to assess the cost-effectiveness of their automation decision: What are the cost/benefits analyses that have to take place?’ ” Students get constant exposure to various new and existing technologies, he emphasizes. CAMC’s program also looks at core technologies; for example, vision system, servo drives and motors, and the like.

But the market informs CAMC of what it should be teaching students, he states. That philosophy, of being current in training, is something Ryan believes institutions of learning must do to be responsive. “We call it maintaining an over-the-horizon view.”

That view fully embraces Web skills. Ryan observes that Web visibility is very important to training automation engineers. Noting “you have to have a huge hands-on training,” he says that CAMC trains its technicians and technologists how to manage automation via the Web. Another hot area requiring Web use/leverage is original equipment manufacturer-based service, Ryan adds. “We think that’s the next big emerging skill area for automation technicians, technologists and engineers.&rdquo

Still, training of technicians and technologists seems to be more local—and such training occurs in few places, Campbell observes. Lamenting the insufficient recognition of these technician and technologist programs, he says there is “a crying need” to get manufacturing to be accepted as a legitimate occupation. “People don’t realize that there are gold-collar jobs in manufacturing.”

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