Hot topics in Control Engineering for 2021

Think Again: PLC programming, AI and control system evolution, the Career and Salary Survey and HMI/SCADA design were among top articles posted on the Control Engineering website during 2021. Why? See also top 3 covers, top 10 articles posted prior to 2021.

By Mark T. Hoske January 11, 2022
Image courtesy: Wood


Learning Objectives

  • Review top 10 Control Engineering articles posted in 2021 and Control Engineering hot topics during the last five months of 2021.
  • Discover why these top 3 covers of 2021 were chosen: IIoT for automation, calibration, applying automation.
  • Learn from the top 10 Control Engineering articles posted prior to 2021: tutorial topics.

Free programming software for education, evolution of control systems with artificial intelligence, career and salary survey, HMI/SCADA design tips, simulation and computer-aided design of control systems were the top 5 hot Control Engineering topics posted in 2021, based on Google Analytics. These topics are core to understanding control systems and helping automation and controls engineers do their jobs better, all major areas of Control Engineering coverage.

New to this listing are the top Control Engineering articles from monthly tallies, August through December, providing additional hot-topic representation from later in 2021.

Top covers Control Engineering of 2021 were on Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) for automation, “6 things to know about calibration,” and “Get a grip on applying automation” as chosen by Michael Smith, Control Engineering creative director.

Top articles posted prior to 2021 covered five characteristics of cloud computing, understanding permanent magnet motors, fundamentals of cascade control, top 5 VFD parameter changes explained, and antenna basics, antenna types, antenna functions. These articles written in tutorial or tip format have become consistent favorites. All also were represented on the Control Engineering hot topics for 2020 lists.

Right now, consider writing now: Think again about articles planned for 2022 at and contribute your expertise to next year’s hot topics article review.

Top 10 Control Engineering articles posted in 2021

The articles posted during 2021 at with the most clicks during 2021 follow. This metric favors those posted earlier in the year. NEW: Also see top articles posted later in 2021.

  1. Free PLC programming software for education, January 29: Available programmable logic controller (PLC) software that is free for users is crucial for users and students who can’t currently access a lab. See table with a breakdown. (Note: In top 10 overall for 2021)
  2. Evolution of control systems with artificial intelligence, February 17: Cover Story: Can artificial intelligence (AI) prove to be the next evolution of control systems? See three AI controller characteristics and three applications.
  3. Control Engineering Career and Salary Survey, 2021, May 18: Career update: COVID-19 accelerates innovative technology implementations; engineering salaries increase; job satisfaction is high. The lack of skilled workers, economy and lack of necessary materials are biggest threats to manufacturing.
  4. When designing HMI/SCADA, consider many factors, June 7: User abilities, skill levels, future plans, needs of stakeholders, and other items should be explored. See a system integrator’s advice and seven SCADA system integration/design questions to ask.
  5. From simulation to computer-aided design of control systems, June 30: Cover Story: While simulation systems can help for control system programming design, a general-purpose programming language like C# can be used: First, some basic control system theory.
  6. Structuring with IEC 61131-3: 7 steps to success, July 6: The IEC 61131-3 standard includes powerful structuring tools and can help provide users an excellent way to break a control system down into manageable units for greater overall effectiveness.
  7. PLCs power industrial data integration, January 5: Cover Story: Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) have recently gained capabilities formerly possible only with PCs, expanding their role to support seamless data integration with the enterprise.
  8. Using IIoT for a more energy-efficient pump environment, January 4: Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) case study shows how to use pump power measurements to save energy using sensors enabled by wireless gateway and cloud-based analytics. Secure and relatively simple technologies were used; see eight project guidelines.
  9. Four tips for designing scalable IIoT networks, July 5: Don’t get distracted by the promises of the latest so-called solutions for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Focus on these essential design principles while building a data network. Intelligent input/output modules and other tools can add flexibility.
  10. Finite-state machine for embedded systems, October 4: Get help for finite-state machine programming for embedded systems using C programming language.

Control Engineering hot topics during the last five months of 2021

While it’s not impossible (see #10, above), it’s much less likely that articles posted later in the year will make the top 10 annual list above, since they have less time to gather clicks than articles posted earlier in the year. That said, below see five hot topic articles not on the list above, but on each of the monthly list of hot topics, August through December.

August: Face mask prototype can detect COVID-19 infection – Engineers at MIT and Harvard have designed a prototype face mask that can diagnose the person wearing the mask with COVID-19 within about 90 minutes and can be used to detect other pathogens and chemicals.

This has significance because sensor technologies are one third of the control loop (sense-decide-actuate). It also has implications for industrial workforce safety.

September: Engineering Leaders Under 40, Class of 2021 – Meet the engineers who are exceeding expectations and improving operations as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Engineering leaders, amid continuing labor shortages, are of extreme interest to subscribers. Also, it warms the heart to see others excited about and innovating in this profession.

October: 2022 Engineers’ Choice Finalists – Subscribers have significant interest in new products in automation, controls and instrumentation that help them do their jobs better; 72 finalists are listed.

In the January/February 2022 print/digital edition, see the Control Engineering Engineers’ Choice winners for 2022. Feb. 7 is the planned date for announcement online. Learn more about all Control Engineering awards here.

November: Nanotube-based sensor can detect COVID-19 proteins – MIT engineers have designed a nanotube-based sensor that can detect COVID-19 without any antibody and could be used for other pandemic, improving worker health.

Carbon nanotubes have been touted as having special properties useful for many engineering applications; a new use for a sensor that could help industrial safety is of great interest.

December: 2022 System Integrator of the Year winners – Integrator companies Revere Control Systems, Hargrove Controls + Automation and Huffman Engineering are recognized for their outstanding achievements.

Efficient and effective system integration is core to making automation, controls and instrumentation optimize operations. Many automation users turn to system integrators for help.

Top 3 covers of 2021: IIoT for automation, calibration, applying automation

Michael Smith, Control Engineering creative director explains why these were his three favorite covers.

The April 2021 issue cover on IIoT for automation does a great job of showing how today’s engineers are interacting with technology in real-time. In the image, cropping, color and lighting work together to draw your eye in to help communicate IIoT and automation.

In the June 2021 issue, the engineer is busy calibrating an instrument for service. The colors and human integration as portrayed makes this image very appealing. The red color reverse bar, coupled with the type design directs the eye to the clear and concise message about calibration.

In the August 2021 issue, the cropping and formatting help to paint a unique angle on robotics. The electric use of color, and the integrated message work together to create a lot of graphic interest. The engineering audience can see that robots are among key ways automation is being applied to enable present and future manufacturing.

Top covers Control Engineering of 2021 were on Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) for automation, “6 things to know about calibration,” and “Get a grip on applying automation” as chosen by Michael Smith, Control Engineering creative director. See the top 10 Control Engineering articles of 2021 and top 10 posted prior to 2021. Image courtesy: Control Engineering, Schneider Electric (April 2021), Fluke Calibration (June 2021) and Applied Manufacturing Technologies (August 2021).

Top covers Control Engineering of 2021 were on Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) for automation, “6 things to know about calibration,” and “Get a grip on applying automation” as chosen by Michael Smith, Control Engineering creative director. See the top 10 Control Engineering articles of 2021 and top 10 posted prior to 2021. Image courtesy: Control Engineering, Schneider Electric (April 2021), Fluke Calibration (June 2021) and Applied Manufacturing Technologies (August 2021).

Top 10 Control Engineering articles posted prior to 2021: tutorial topics

Tutorials to help with automation and control represent hot-topic articles (most traffic) posted prior to 2021.

  1. Five characteristics of cloud computing, 2017: Cloud computing’s characteristics and benefits include on-demand self-service, broad network access, and being very elastic and scalable.
  2. Understanding permanent magnet motors, 2017: A permanent magnet (PM) motor is an ac motor that uses magnets imbedded into or attached to the surface of the motor’s rotor. This article provides an elementary understanding behind the terminology, concepts, theory, and physics behind PM motors.
  3. Fundamentals of cascade control, 2014: Sometimes two controllers can do a better job of keeping one process variable where you want it.
  4. Top 5 VFD parameter changes explained, 2020: Programming variable frequency drives (VFDs) to fit most industrial applications require only the most basic settings to operate the motor. Understand these 5 VFD parameter changes to optimize VFD programming to fit most motor-drive applications.
  5. Antenna basics, antenna types, antenna functions, 2014: Industrial wireless tutorials: What you need to know about industrial antennas, antenna functions, and antenna capabilities.
  6. Understanding PID control and loop tuning fundamentals, 2016: PID loop tuning may not be a hard science, but it’s not magic either. Here are some tuning tips that work.
  7. Stepper motor torque basics, 2018: Stepper motors remain popular because they are low-cost, rugged, simple, have high torque at startup and low speeds, require little maintenance, and they can operate in an open loop control system.
  8. Applying heat exchanger control strategies, 2016: Inside Process: Integrating control schemes, such as feedback, cascade, and feedforward techniques, can satisfy the control requirements of even highly challenging heat exchanger temperature control applications.
  9. How to select a motor for an industrial application, 2017: Understanding the main types of loads, motors, and applications can help simplify motor and accessory selection.
  10. Which IEC 61131-3 programming language is best? Part 1, 2020: With so many programmable logic controller (PLC) programming languages and standards from which to choose, what is the right choice for automation and controls applications? Part 1 provides an overview and focuses on Ladder Diagram (LD) and Sequential Function Chart (SFC).

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology at Traffic ranking based on analytics performed by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, Cover analysis was by Michael Smith, creative director, Control Engineering.


Control Engineering, hot topics of 2021


What did you think about this year’s lists? Were there articles here: or covers here that weren’t represented here? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.