Where is technology headed in the world of controls and automation? What will the job of an automation and controls engineer look like in the years ahead?

A little warning, thinking about what awaits ahead can create negative feelings of anxiety or fill you with positive motivation thinking about the toys you will get to play with one day.

Servers – Image by Brandon Cooper

Job Skillsets

While a large percentage of control and automation engineers came from an electrical or instrumentation background, the future will see a larger percentage from a computer science or cyber security discipline background.

They will be managing OT networks from a configuration, security and maintenance perspective. They will also be configuring and maintaining the large deployments of virtual servers, workstations and even controllers and network equipment that lives in the local or remote cloud environments that operate a facility.

While not the current normal, virtual PLC and DCS controllers will begin to become an installed reality and only local I/O near machines will be present. Even most I/O will be non-existent from a wiring perspective, because every device will be Ethernet.

Currently most control systems are still using fast Ethernet or gigabit Ethernet for control systems while IT systems my utilize forty GBPS or even four hundred GBPS. It will not be many years before one TBPS will be present and utilized for enormous amounts of data coming from the smartest of devices such as drives and smarter I/O devices than have ever been introduced.

I would suggest that preventive diagnostics and machine monitoring for predictive failure will see advances that will create jobs for those who have the skillsets to capture, monitor and manipulate the data.

Logistics

Remote capabilities have changed many aspects of an engineer’s life the last 5-10 years. Supporting a facility used to mean being at the facility all kinds of hours, staying for maintenance and startups and called in for downtime events.

Today however, systems are supported from anywhere an internet connection is available. Since the pandemic of 2020, we are seeing more engineers working from home or remotely than ever before.

I submit to you in the future, almost all work will be done remotely, even from the standpoint of engineers supporting multiple facilities within the same company.

There will also be some outsourcing of both IT and OT systems, but unless the outsourcing company has in depth knowledge of the facilities they support, it will not go well. Companies will still need their own engineers with intimate knowledge of their facilities to give them the support that they need.

Waiting for an escalation of a downtime event through a support call will not be acceptable. You will most likely see companies implement more of a central support center for multiple facilities to support them with still one or two people handling hardware support on site, depending on the facility size of course.

Operations of a facility will likely also contain one or two control rooms for an entire facility instead of smaller rooms spread out all over the facility and many functions at a facility will likely be done from a remote site as well, unfortunately for many, needing much less manpower for operations.

Conclusion:

I believe we are still many years away from working in totally virtual control and automation environments. For the next decade at least, a control engineer can plan on supporting equipment that could be three or four decades old, right along side of the newest virtual controller running a new machine.

I believe it will be a slow change, but we better all be learning to work with virtual environments because it will be here to stay. Lots of hardware spread out over a facility will be a thing of the past.

But I will also bet, that you can find a facility in twenty years, that still has a PLC-5 running some arbitrary piece of equipment, because it has ran so well for so long, no one even remembered it was there.

Written by Brandon Cooper
Senior Controls Engineer and Freelance Writer

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