Controls system integrator: Always something to learn with PLCs, HMI, SCADA
A controls engineer for a system integrator said he enjoys frequent learning while developing and commissioning programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interfaces (HMI) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, as outlined in the Control Engineering subscriber interview below.
System Integrator Insights
- Work includes developing and commissioning programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interfaces (HMI) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems
- Experiences in control panel fabrication shop, learning control systems, influence views on technology and supply chain challenges.
- Advice for automation, controls, instrumentation industries: Involve younger people throughout the company.
As controls engineer for a systems integrator, I develop programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interface (HMI) programs and commission for new sites or additions, develop supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, develop network architectures, troubleshoot existing controllers, and commission on customer sites.
Industries typically include food and beverage facilities, especially pistachio processing. However I’m currently working at an oil and gas extraction and processing facility. As a company, deliverables are diverse and can be industrial control panel fabrication, electrical control and power distribution design, and electrical conduit and cable installations. Modifications or troubleshooting of a control system beyond our technicians’ abilities is what I’ll work on, as well as on new site commissioning for controls and automation.
Control panel fabrication shop, learning control systems
I started out in my company’s panel fabrication shop after graduating with my bachelors in electrical engineering. I wanted to get an understanding about how to actually build a control system so I could understand the equipment I’m working with and work on them in the field, if necessary. After a year in the shop and becoming the foreman for a short time I moved into controls engineering which I have been doing for three years.
The best part of my job is the ability to learn something new almost all the time. I’m fairly new to the career, but in that time, I’ve learned how to be effective with hand and power tools, how to design, develop, and commission technologies that have a large impact on my community. Every time I learn something new, I find there are even more details to delve into, such as how the different type of wired networks like copper, coaxial, and fiber can coexist and the constraints of each network type.
Challenges, opportunities: travel, technologies, supply chain, processes
The most challenging part of the job is the travel. I’m a homebody and enjoy being with my family, but you travel where the jobs need you to be. I love seeing new places and people, but after a month or two I need to be home to breathe easy.
Work includes upgrading controllers from Rockwell Automation, Allen-Bradley PLC-5s, SLCs, and end of life CompactLogix controllers, and in-service controllers, along with creating or modifying SCADA systems. Supply chain issues have created some constraints on some projects. The supply chain has been rough on everyone worldwide. Everyone wants systems that increase production or gather more data for analytics or replace parts more quickly. It doesn’t appear to be easing up soon.
Useful tools include a Linux virtual machine for troubleshooting networking issues when commissioning new sites and to help see network traffic when commissioning or testing intrusion detection systems.
In my first job, I worked with a lead controls engineer and did some programming for edge-of-network actuators, like remote pumps, and that taught me quite a bit. Learning by doing and working with the lead engineer (letting me make mistakes without damaging anything) really helped me out.
Areas of interest and growth include industry trends and case studies, especially Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cybersecurity and networks mostly because I’m interested in the technologies and how they will change the landscape of future work.
In addition to Control Engineering, other resources include instruction manuals from whatever I’m working on and troubleshooting in the field, such as a PID controller manual. On more conceptual stuff like HMI or network design, I’ll read case studies or large automation vendor best practices documents.
Advice for automation, controls, instrumentation industries
As for advice, I would recommend getting new, younger people involved up and down the company. I’m currently working with customer technicians who are very knowledgeable about old equipment and practices, but when we need to place new tech in place of that old stuff, they can be resistant and assert that any issues must be on the PLC or the factory the component came from. A colleague from another company told me he started explaining how to logon and view information about new smart electrical meters to a site’s lead maintenance person. The response was: “I think I’m gonna retire in two weeks.”
I like seeing things through; Leaving something half-finished is difficult for me.
I also enjoy explaining things to people. Safety always is a priority, ensuring there are no systems bypassed, such as a broken estop bypassed to continue production, increasing risk. If an estop goes out and cannot be replaced right away, perhaps one can be appropriated temporarily (with appropriate cautionary signage) from an unused part of the facility, until the replacement arrives.
Ian Ives is control engineer at JTI Electrical & Instrumentation LLC; Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, email@example.com.