The Rise of Industrial Automation

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift towards an increased reliance on workplace automation. Social distancing and remote work requirements left many manufacturers scrambling to manage production safely. Collaborative robots (cobots) filled the void.

Cobots are designed to share space and work with human counterparts. While their increased implementation will cause shifts within the human workforce, they will not replace human workers. However, adaptations will need to be made in order to optimize the potential of cobots. First, the manufacturing of cobots needs to be stepped up considerably to meet the increased demand. Next, human employees – and especially controls engineers – will need to adapt to the changes that cobots introduce into the work environment.

Industrial automation has always held a lot of potential for the manufacturing industry with its ability to increase productivity, precision, and flexibility, as well as decrease costs. However, according to the 2021 Control Engineering Career and Salary Survey and Report, technology applications related to automations and controls increased by 19% as a direct result of the pandemic. The vast majority of respondents to that survey (92%) do believe that the technological innovations that were introduced over the past year will continue or accelerate in growth in post-pandemic times.

Industrial Automation

A blog piece at TechTarget defines industrial automation as: “the control of machinery and processes used in various industries by autonomous systems through the use of technologies like robotics and computer software.”

The mechanization of manufacturing began in the mid-eighteenth century, during the Industrial Revolution. New mechanical processes were invented and implemented, increasing production and decreasing costs. While control loops were eventually added, allowing for round-the-clock production, skilled workers remain necessary to most manufacturing processes, monitoring for quality control and equipment malfunctions.

As technology continued to improve, robots were developed and they gained some foothold in the manufacturing industry. However, as pointed out in an NBC News piece, the high cost of developing and implementing robot-type machines was a deterrent in their wide-scale implementation – until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The Rise of Automation/Robotics Due to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in many changes to the manufacturing industry. Processes needed to be adapted to new safety protocols around social distancing, sanitation, and remote work. As succinctly stated in a piece by NBC News, “the exodus of people forced the adoption of tech.” As a result, existing automated processes were accelerated and improvements and changes were made to existing machines to enhance their productivity.

Case Study: Promess Inc.

As an example, as reported in a Society of Manufacturing Engineers blog, the pandemic prompted Promess Inc. to add extra functions to their Electric Press Workstations.The company added ancillary functions and improved the way that the machines communicate with the rest of the factory via the Internet or Intranet:

in addition to pressing two parts together and confirming that the measured force and travel were as expected and the assembly is therefore good, the Work Station might also take dimensional measurements and pass that information along. This eliminates the need for a separate gaging station.

These changes to existing machines simplified the transfer line, streamlined the dispersal of data, and made it easier for employees to maintain social distancing.

Case Study: Fagor Automation–USA

As another example, Fagor Automation–USA accelerated the development of an HTML5-based remote control. This type of control can be used across multiple browsers, making it easy for any employee to access the remote connection via different types of phones, devices, and computers. The program allows limiting remote connections to devices that are in certain locations. For example, an employee working remotely might be able to log in from home, but might be restricted from access while off their property, in case the device was lost or stolen. With an HTML5-based control, it’s possible to not just monitor activity but to manage machine commands remotely. Remote monitoring isn’t new, but the need for it has increased due to remote work arrangements adopted by many companies. Increased flexibility for remote monitoring is now crucial.

Case Study: Eastman Machine Company

Based in Buffalo, NY, the Eastman Machine Company produces machines that cut specialty material like fiberglass and technical textiles. Although the company produces manual cutting machines that require an operator at all times, it’s their computer-controlled automated systems that are currently in high demand. As of April, 2021, NBC News reported that the company had seen a 30% increase in sales for their automated systems, with a months-long backlog of orders to fill.

East Machine Company CEO Robert Stevenson understands the move towards automation. During the pandemic, his own production lines were short staffed due to capacity limitations. However, Stevenson does stress that companies still require skilled staff to work alongside the cobots.

The Demand for Controls Engineers

It’s not just skilled operators that will be needed as automation moves forward. Controls engineers will be in high demand as well.

ZipRecruiter defines controls engineers as professionals who:

help create the layout of electrical and mechanical control systems. [They] … may help program an automation process, modify existing programming when necessary, and help ensure the company is using the safest and most productive system possible for its needs. [They] may also be responsible for creating training documentation to show employees how to control and adjust their operations.

It’s clear that as automation increases, the need for controls engineers will increase as well. Coupled with the shortage of STEM-proficient professionals in the U.S., the high demand for qualified controls engineers will likely result in excellent job opportunities and salary offers for those in the profession.

If you are considering a career change, the field of controls engineering is a lucrative one to explore.