If Americans want to strengthen our manufacturing base, we need more engineering graduates who are focused on automation. Many schools have degrees that touch on the needs of manufacturing, but they don't really do a deep dive into automation.
To give you a feel for the current state of affairs, when I typed into Google search "list of universities with automation degrees," Google's response was, "Did you mean ‘list of universities with automotive degrees?'" Then there were two ad links for automotive programs before an automation program was even listed. Not a good sign.
From my experience, many members of the higher education establishment view automation as an associate's degree, technician-level program. They are underestimating the complexity of designing and integrating automated systems on a plant-wide basis. Automation is more than just programming or electrical engineering or mechanical engineering. It is all of these and more.
A couple of years ago, I attended a university dinner and was speaking to the dean of engineering at a major public university whose engineering program is highly regarded. I asked him why they haven't added an automation engineering degree, or at least some related classes, to their undergraduate engineering program. He dismissively responded that automation was covered by the local community college, so the university didn't need to provide that. What the local community college was offering was a program to train technicians to program and troubleshoot automated equipment. It wasn't teaching how to design and integrate automation systems in a complex industrial environment.
The only related offering in that university's entire engineering program was one class on control system theory. Talking to one of our engineers who had taken the course, he said that it had no real relevance to the automation and controls work he is now doing for our company.
I believe another misguided assumption that prevents our universities from planning for manufacturing's automation needs is a belief that there is a decline in the U.S. manufacturing sector. This is a common misconception that I hear when speaking with people about manufacturing and often read in the media. It simply isn't true.
Businesses are spending money on new plants and equipment. According to the Institute for Supply Management April 2015 "Manufacturing ISM Report on Business," nationally, "Economic activity in the manufacturing sector expanded in April for the 28th consecutive month." Manufacturing is not declining in the United States.
In addition, we are now in the midst of a significant amount of manufacturing reshoring. This has been led by many factors, including quality issues, rising wage levels in emerging economies, availability of low-cost energy sources, lax intellectual property rights and the introduction of advanced robotics (in other words, manufacturers are able to return manufacturing to the United States because of automation).
Where are the automation courses?
There seem to be pockets of universities, for example, in the Midwest, that offer four-year automation degrees. These are likely promoted and at least partially funded by a concentrated industry need around those areas.
For example, Purdue University has a degree program in automation & systems integration engineering technology. It has a 1,400 sq.ft., fully functional, automated manufacturing lab. The engineering labs were originally funded by a grant from a local product manufacturing company and, later, additional gifts to endow a professorship of engineering. According to Purdue's website, their main source of day-to-day income is from research contracts.
Is there enough demand?
A large percentage of the recently graduated college engineers we have hired over the past five to 10 years did not specifically set out to become automation engineers. A few sought out automation or mechatronics degree programs, however, most of them discovered automation early in their college engineering education and said, "Yes, this is what I want to do." Then they structured their studies to obtain that education. Some others didn't discover automation until they had nearly completed their mechanical engineering or electrical engineering degrees, then returned to complete a master's degree in a related field to acquire the necessary knowledge before continuing on to find work in automation.
Automation-related degrees aren't adequately described. I visited one website that explains all the different possible college degrees. Automation engineering was listed as a subset of industrial engineering, which is not where most people interested in an automation career would look. It also said that pursuing a degree in automation engineering would "open up a number of career opportunities in maintenance, repair and robotics." Again, this may be what the associate degree would prepare you for, but not the bachelor's degree.
FIRST Robotics competitions should have exposed many kids to automation by now. How do we convert them into automation engineers? Programs like FIRST are meant to increase interest in all types of science and technical degrees, including automation. FIRST is in the second year of a five-year longitudinal study of the impacts of the FIRST program on students. Thus far, the survey has shown a positive impact on STEM-related attitudes of participants, but it is too early to tell if it will impact their educational and career trajectories. That data should be available within the next few years.
So where do we go from here?
Do we need to create more awareness and demand? The answer is yes! The need for automation engineers will continue to grow due to the older work force retiring, advances in automation technologies and continued growth and reshoring of U.S. manufacturing. We need to raise awareness at the university level and raise awareness at the student level. And the automation industry needs to proactively and vocally demonstrate the need for college graduates with automation degrees.
Industry needs to help fund facilities and labs, endow professorships and help set up research contracts with universities. I recommend involving your local manufacturing companies in discussion of research contracts and other funding opportunities. The universities will not by themselves overcome the initial inertia to set up automation degree programs. The primary demand driver has to be industry. Industry needs to interact with key university department heads and arrange funding to get the automation degree programs off the ground.
This is the challenge of the automation and controls industry. We are spread out geographically to an extent that it is difficult to get momentum and enough funding together to make an automation engineering program attractive to our local universities. However, if one company can get it started at Purdue University, then one or two of us should be able to get it started at our local universities.
We also have to get over the notion that automation can only be learned with hands-on experience on the job, and that it's not possible to teach it in college. With the proper investment in labs, it can be taught, and automation engineers can come out of college without large gaps in their automation abilities (gaps either on the electrical, mechanical or programming sides).
At the student level, the automation industry needs to continue supporting programs like FIRST Robotics that have already been shown to raise student awareness in technology fields, and should also reach out to local middle schools and high schools to offer tours of their facilities.
I don't believe most incoming college freshmen engineering students have the career vision to know that their career will be in automation, so I don't think there will be enough incoming students demanding automation degrees to have an impact on the universities' decision-making. I do think that if industry pushes to get the degree programs set up, then the students will come. Because, as you all know, automation engineers do cool stuff.