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Automation engineering

Automation generally involves taking a manufacturing, processing, or mining process that was previously done with human labor and creating equipment/machinery that does it without human labor. Often, in automation, engineers will use a PLC or DCS with standard I/O, valves, servos, photo-eyes, VFDs, RTDs, etc to accomplish this task. Control engineering falls under the same umbrella in that you are automating a process such as controlling the focus on a camera or maintaining the speed of a car with a gas pedal, but often you are designing something like the autofocus on a camera or cruise control on an automobile and oftentimes have to design the controls using FPGA's or circuits and components completely fabricated by the engineering team's own design.

When I first started, I started in the DCS side. Many of the large continuous process industries only let chemical engineers like myself anywhere near the DCS. EE landed the instruments and were done. It was all about you had to be process engineer before your became a controls engineer. In the PLC world it was the opposite, the EE dominated. Now it doesn't line up along such sharp lines anymore. But there are lots people doing control/automation work that are clueless when comes to understanding process. When this happens it is crucial they are given firm oversight by someone who does.

On operators, I always tell young budding engineers to learn to talk to operators with a little advice, do not discount their observations because their analysis as to the cause is unbelievable, their observations are generally spot on. For someone designing a control system, they must be able to think like an operator and understand how operators behave and anticipate how they will use the control system. This is key to a successful project. If the operators do not like or understand the control system, they will kill a project. This is different than understanding how a process works which is also important.

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