Automation Pros Need IT Skills

July 1, 2004
Alan Carty has an insider’s vantage of how automation and Information Technology (IT) are rapidly converging. As the founder, president, and chief executive officer of Automationtechies.com (www.automationtechies.com), based in Eden Prairie, Minn., Carty receives hundreds of resumes weekly from hopeful automation professionals looking for work.

Although the positions Carty is trying to fill might have familiar titles such as “Controls Engineer,” their job requirements often range far from textbook.

According to Carty, many employers are requiring automation applicants to have experience with general computer hardware, as well as high-level and personal computer programming languages. Traditionally, automation and controls engineers have programmed in ladder logic, but today’s manufacturing environment requires engineers to demonstrate knowledge and proficiencies that are more the ilk of computer science majors. “A controls engineer had better know how to program in Visual Basic and C++, because in many cases, even PLCs (programmable logic controllers) have the capability for you to program in those languages.” Employers typically also want applicants to have proficiency working in .Net and SQL environments, Carty says.

Despite the integration of Ethernet networking, Wide Area Networks, Web Services, and other IT concepts into the modern plant facility, one factor influencing the job market stems from advances in controller technology itself. “Over the years, there have basically been four types of controllers out there, PLCs, Distributed Control Systems (DCSs), motion controllers, and computers that we used for HMI (human-machine interface),” Carty observes. “Well, today it seems like manufacturers are working toward a common platform. Now, it’s almost difficult to tell what you’re programming, whether it’s a DCS or whether it’s a motion controller.”

As the technologies that are central to the automation field continue to change, some believe that technical schools will have to modify their curricula to include subjects such as high-level programming, network administration and digital security. Until such changes in training occur, these sources say, automation professionals have few ways to demonstrate their job proficiency other than showing a resume.

One forthcoming option is the Certified Automation Professional (CAP) program, which is being developed by the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA, www.isa.org) to test automation professionals on their job competency. Carty, who was a member of the group that enumerated the skills sets and job tasks for the new certification program, believes that a program such as CAP could help test and monitor an engineer’s proficiency with general IT skills.

“Within the six major performance domains that were defined by our group, one of them was ‘development.’ My opinion is that some of the questions in the development domain should deal with IT issues. Not everyone will know [those topics], but I think this type of testing program could cover everything.” Carty goes on to say that the “development” area could include database-related questions, networking configuration questions, and other types of questions typically associated with IT.

And indeed, according to information available on the ISA Web site, it looks as though those areas will be included in the CAP exam. The first CAP exam is scheduled to be administered Oct. 7 at ISA Expo 2004 in Houston. Additional CAP exams will be given at select sites on Oct. 9 and Dec. 11. The application fee is $250 for ISA members and $295 for non-members.

If there is such a new focus on integrating IT skill sets into manufacturing, wouldn’t it be cost-efficient for facility operators to pull new employees from the IT professional talent pool, rather than retrain current automation professionals? Carty thinks this idea doesn’t work for one simple reason. “The thing that really differentiates an automation and controls engineer from an IT professional is that the controls engineer is an IT specialist and a process engineer bundled into one.” Carty believes that most IT professionals don’t have the process engineering skill, which is essential to any engineer working on the plant floor.

Carty doesn’t think there will ever come a time when controls or automation engineers are not needed. “I think they will have to know a lot about IT, and be able to apply it to the manufacturing and process control applications they already understand.”

J.L. Reid, [email protected], is a writer commissioned by the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society.