UCSC and automation education

There aren’t many schools training automation professionals, but who can blame them for not wanting to do more than a head nod toward teaching the tools and techniques in their science and engineering curricula?

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Walt BoyesBy Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

In August, when I was researching the material for my story on the future of automation, I took a look at the courses offered by my own alma mater, the University of California at Santa Cruz, known sometimes as Bananaslug U, after the university mascot. Like many engineering schools, UC Santa Cruz offers very few classes in applied controls and automation—in fact, it offers none. I wrote UCSC Baskin School of Engineering’s dean, Sung-Mo “Steve” Kang and complained.

In fairness to the university, Dean Kang and several of his professors wrote back to me to note that they were doing great work in autonomous control and robotics. I like robots, too.

However . . .

Bananaslug U is thirty miles across the Coast Range hills from Silicon Valley, and many graduates have gone to work in the silicon mines. Many Valley companies have need for control and automation professionals—either engineers or technicians because it is not possible to make silicon without automation. Yet Bananaslug U doesn’t serve this constituency at all.

Now, UC Santa Cruz is far from the only institution of higher learning where applied automation is invisible. No more than a handful of schools—many of those are two-year technical schools—offer the educational background to equip students for careers as automation professionals.

This may be one of the reasons that the majority of people who work in automation careers came to them from something else, and why so many process automation jobs are going begging all over the world: There just aren’t many schools training automation professionals.

The fact that the majority of people working in automation aren’t degreed engineers with backgrounds in control systems was one of the initial impetuses driving ISA’s Certified Automation Professional program.

Recently, I investigated what it would take for me to qualify to take the exam and be certified. To my dismay, I found that I don’t appear to qualify, even though I have been a working automation professional since the 1960s (when I started repairing instruments in my dad’s shop). So, if there are very few schools offering automation education and it is really difficult to get certified if you aren’t already an engineer of some kind, what is it about automation that we think makes it an independent profession?

The future of manufacturing worldwide is tied to the ability of manufacturing professionals to understand and use the technologies of automation, from loop control to enterprise integration. Yet nowhere do we have consistent training, and nowhere is such training a formal requirement to work in the profession, so the academic institutions can hardly be blamed for not wanting to do more than a head nod toward the tools and techniques of automation in their science and engineering curricula.

Maybe if a bad enough industrial accident occurs, where the cause is traced to either poor automation design or operator error, there’ll be a movement toward certification of plant operators and engineers in automation. And maybe then, colleges and universities will take the discipline of automation seriously.

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