Having worked in multiple facilities, I've seen first hand how different automation teams operate under different philosophies and working conditions.
In evaluation of the control and automation groups I have worked in or around, I've found there have been two main philosophies, each with opposite end approaches.
Philosophy A: Smallest Team Possible, On Call 24/7/365
Facilities that fall into this first category have the goal of maintaining the smallest automation team possible.
And the control engineers they do employ are on call around the clock, week in and week out, even though in most cases they are never compensated for the countless hours of overtime they end up working.
Then, after the facility is done burning out their engineer, they help them find a way out and repeat the process with someone else.
Philosophy B: Sustainable Team Focused On Emergencies, Support, and Upgrades
Facilities that fall into this second category strive to maintain a sustainable engineering team for the benefit of both the company and their engineering team.
They build and size a team that cannot only handle the times when the facility is having difficulties, but one that can also provide “customer service” to the facility operations group.
And when operations are running smoothly, their team focuses on manufacturing improvements that reduce overall costs and improve plant efficiencies, with the resulting saving more than offsetting the expense of having the engineer team in the first place.
Building and Maintaining a Sustainable Automation Team
In addition to the number of control engineers that is needed to maintain a facility with balance for both the facility and the automation team members, there are some other key components that can make a team sustainable (or lack sustainability.)
The strongest control teams have documented “to the letter” all system assets.
This documentation consists of network drawings, fiber and connectivity drawings, passwords and login information, as well as a master asset list with all operating system and firmware revision levels.
From restarting the facility after a power loss, to where and how to accomplish system backups, to all other system procedures, sustainable control teams have procedures for everything that they touch.
If you are not moving forward, you are moving backward in this fast paced, ever changing technological field of work.
Training IS necessary for any team to stay up to date with the newest technologies.
Balancing the workload across team members is a must.
A real team helps each other with work/life balance, as well as helps each other across the different stages of life.
One week I may need someone to take a “call” in my place so I can attend my son’s playoff game, and the next week I may need to cover for a team member who's helping a sick family member. The best teams take care of each other.
Balance of skill sets:
Everyone on a team will bring a different skill set to the group.
One person may have strength in networking, while another is proficient in PLC programming, while yet another has extensive experience with database and big data manipulation.
These are all important skills, and when everyone brings such experiences to the group great tasks can be accomplished and maintained.
Last but not least, it takes a good leader to bring all this together.
The group leader needs to be willing to proactively monitor the group’s needs and progress, while also making sure that operations needs are met.
The leader needs to monitor the group for load distribution, training, balance of skills, and other criteria to insure the group stable for the long term.
When a team is managed in such a way, when a member of team does leave, the group and facility are not immediately in distress due to the loss of a single engineer.
While the loss is still felt, it doesn't result in the need to completely rebuild the group, nor does it result in the loss of knowledge needed for the facility to continue to move forward.
The Results Of Each Approach
Working as part of a minimalist team for a company that falls into category “A” can really be a nightmare for the engineer, since they'll often suffer from a lack of work/life balance.
And while there is some truth to the old saying, “any work is better then no work,” most people you'll find working in engineering teams at category “A” facilities won't think twice about leaving to join the engineering team in a company that falls into category “B.”
“You don't earn the respect of your employees by disrespecting them – SMT”
That's because working as part of a sustainable control and automation engineering team can be one of the most rewarding, innovative, and intellectually stimulating jobs obtainable.
With the right team members in the right environment, there's truly no limit to what can be accomplished by a sustainable team working together.
Written by Brandon Cooper
Senior Controls Engineer and Freelance Writer