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Matt Kelland


Engineering in the New Industrial Revolution, Part 2

The task of breathing life into machines

Published: Wednesday, September 9, 2015 - 11:59

In part one of this article, we looked at ways automation can increase quality and output while saving manufacturers money. Part two considers the ways engineers are developing production systems to take advantage of automation, which requires a different mindset than traditional mechanical engineering.

Designing machinery for a modern factory requires familiarity with robotics, information technology, and process engineering. In a very important sense, manufacturing engineers are verging into artificial intelligence, much more than just physical construction of objects.

(photo credit Creative Commons BY SA)

“There’s a huge skills gap,” says industry solutions architect Paul Didier of Cisco. “We need maybe 10 million engineers over the next decade who can work with this kind of equipment. The level of automation we’re looking at is ever expanding; it’s not enough to have a robot that can do the task. Now you have to be able to automate fault detection and preventive maintenance. You have to ask, ‘What are the scenarios that tell me something is about to fail and fix it before it’s a problem?’ Effectively, you’re automating optimization. The key for engineers is to take your understanding of the physical world and the product, and apply that knowledge into building a system. Robots should be self-configuring. If they fail, I should have all the information I need.”

Todd Walter, chief marketing manager of embedded systems at National Instruments, pinpoints one key part of the problem. “There’s a large divide between the IT groups and the operations groups, and that’s one of the areas we need to get sorted out to create understanding for this to work. A lot of the issues are due to policies within companies. The IT groups need to understand operational issues, just as the ops guys need to understand the IT issues. What we really need is engineers who have practical operational experience.”

Steve Hechtmann of Inductive Automation specializes in integrating industrial control systems. “When I go in to a client, I’d ask to operate the process for a day to get how it actually works and what really matters to them,” he says. “You’re surrounded by millwrights, hydraulics guys, electricians, chemists, and so on. You don’t need to be able to do their jobs, but if you’re the computer guy, you need to know what they’re doing and why. It’s very interdisciplinary, and that’s a lot of fun.”

Educators have also been paying attention to these issues. “We started the mechatronics program because traditional four-year engineering degrees don’t give engineers the practical skills they need,” says Kevin Paveglio, who runs the mechatronics degree program at ECPI College of Technology in Virginia. “Even physical maintenance is a skilled job. You still need a guy with a wrench and a can of grease and micrometers, but he needs new skills. Machines need adjusting to thousandths of an inch. You need someone who can recognize whether a problem is electrical, mechanical, software, or some combination of them all. And those skills aren’t easy to teach. You need lots of hands-on experience, and you often need to develop simulators to train on. After all, you don’t want students to wreck a million-dollar machine. But if you can program a six-axis robot, you can be earning 30K more than a guy with a normal engineering degree.”

The technical challenge facing engineers is huge. “You’ll be in the workforce for 50 years, but in a few years, things will completely change. Thomas Kurfess, a professor at Georgia Tech, an ASME fellow, and former advisor to President Obama on manufacturing technologies. “Are you willing to go back and retrain?” he asks. “You need to change the way you think. For example, these days, we’re no longer telling a robot to get an object based on its spatial position. Instead, it uses vision systems to find something of the right shape. When you’re setting up a production line, you have to ask, ‘How do I make it easy for the robot? For a person, I’d put screws in a box; for robots I’d put them in holes.’ You need to understand how robots ‘think’ and change your thinking to match.”

Just keeping up with latest developments is a time-consuming task. “The integrators who put these systems together have to know what’s already available,” says Paveglio. “In most cases, you can use components off the shelf. Often they need to be customized. The rare projects are completely designed from scratch, but even they use a lot of ready-made components and assemblies. The key is someone who knows what’s out there and how to bring everything together as a system. You can source parts from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, America, or anywhere, and they’re all designed to IEEE standards so they can interact. Almost anything you can think of, someone out there has something that can do it. You could spend hundreds of hours just training on what sensors are available. Do you need a camera that can go inside a 2000-degree oven? You can find it if you know where to look.”

Some companies, such as Siemens and BMW, have already taken the initiative to start training the next generation of engineering workforce themselves. “The robot manufacturers need to teach people how to work with their kit,” Paveglio stresses. “CEOs are worried about what’s going to happen if they can’t buy the technical skills they need.”

Other industry-led consortia such as AVNU are partnering with universities to try and get the necessary skills into the education system. “At Cisco, we’re establishing partnerships with companies like Rockwell to train IT guys to get familiar with operational parts of the business,” notes Didier. We have to see some blending of engineering capacities. For example, mechanical engineers need to understand the core IT technologies so as they develop new products, they can get them into the IoT world and get things done faster. We’ve established the Industrial IP Advantage consortium to deliver free IT and OT training to cross-train engineers. And we’ve just announced the Cisco Certified Network Assistant Industrial program, which will set the standard for engineers in this field.”

Walter encourages both engineers and companies to do their part to change the industry. “Getting involved in AVNU is a good way to come up to speed on what’s happening and find ways to participate,” he says. “There are also forums in IEEE. We are looking for smart people to jump in and help to create change.”

Hechtmann agrees that addressing the education gap is critical. “Getting the right training and experience is a real problem,” he says. “Young engineers coming into the field are more or less clueless about how to run plants and factories, because they don’t teach that. We set up Inductive University so that engineers can become credentialed in using our systems. We work with universities and department heads to get practical skills to students. With this you can get a job anywhere in the world with an integrator.”

Interspecies communication is key

However, mastering a wide range of massively different technologies is only the start of the skills engineers need. They also need to develop a deep understanding of the business aspect of manufacturing—not just cost, but also the needs of the business to adapt and adopt flexible procedures.

(photo credit Creative Commons, Steve Jurvetson BY)

“Ultimately, all those machines need to communicate with the people who are running the plant,” explains Bob Giese, president of Versacall. “On any production floor, there’s a whole spectrum of activity, so how does management know where to direct their attention? The answer, as we’ve proven with companies like Harley Davidson and 3M, is that the machines themselves need to provide that information. When you have good feedback, you can see where the issues are and take decisions on what’s happening. We can eliminate tedious and inaccurate manual data capture, and that gives us better auditing. We can address health and safety issues, get better quality products, and increase productivity and control. We can identify whether we’re hitting production targets, monitor the amount of waste, and monitor cycle time. We’re typically getting a 10-percent reduction in downtime, which gives our clients an increase of 3 percent or more in production. The key is the ability to direct information to the correct individual.”

But merely providing swathes of data isn’t enough. It has to be presented in a form that managers and line personnel can understand and act on. “Understanding of the manufacturing process and presenting it in visual format, on anything from large screens to phones and tablets, is where technology is now,” stresses Giese. “Knowing that is what makes a difference from a job candidate standpoint.”

Walter concurs. “From a skill-set perspective, the level of complexity that this type of system adds is substantial, and all of this needs to be abstracted from the end-user. If you look under the covers of, say, a cell phone, think about what a good job the developers have done of making it easy for the users. That’s what we need to do in manufacturing. Operators want to optimize production of what they do, not be experts in the systems that hold it all together.”

The 21st-century engineer

Rick Barrett, director of technology at Prescient, a manufacturing and technology company, has reassuring words for engineers. “Faced with this level of automated manufacturing, the skilled labor workforce often gets nervous about job security,” he says. “Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the opposite—we’ve grown faster and hired more people.”

There are a growing number of roles for engineers in this new world, and demand has never been higher for those with the right skills. At the root of the business, there’s a vast need for individual components, from sensors or servos to routers. The next layer of engineers creates standard assemblies or machines, from smart machine tools to highly sophisticated robots. Then come the integrators, who design the plants and factories, and finally, the onsite operators who need the skills to maintain and run them.

Traditional engineering skills, including CAD/CAM, math, and all the specialist disciplines, are still essential. Almost every branch of engineering is affected, from agricultural to architectural, aerospace, and automotive. The challenge facing most engineers now is not merely whether we can build something, but how efficiently we can manufacture it. And to do that, the key, according to everyone quoted here, is cross-disciplinary collaboration, adaptability, and creativity.

As Hechtmann says, your task is to breathe life into machines.

Just try to avoid creating Skynet by accident.

First published on EngineerJobs.com.


About The Author

Matt Kelland’s picture

Matt Kelland

Matt Kelland has more than 25 years experience in software engineering. He has worked in the United Kingdom and United States, as well as with numerous partners around the world. He is currently a lecturer teaching business skills to software developers in central Florida.