India is investing hugely in infrastructure, catalysing growth of industries like cement and steel. It is also going to be the biggest drug manufacturer in the next couple of years. These industrial processes require automation to keep up with efficiency, accuracy, global norms and speed. Automation improves the safety and reliability of an industrial production process while maintaining a high product quality. With the increasing automation of industrial processes, there is need for efficient manpower as well.
Scope of automation
Anup Wadhwa, director, Automation Industry Association (AIA), explains, “Automation itself it a very vast field. Depending on the needs of businesses, different companies classify it via different criteria. However, for industrial purposes, we talk about manufacturing environments. There are front and back ends to automation, and companies deal in the same from the end user’s point of view. A company can be called to be dealing with process automation if the end user is operating in an explosive or hazardous area. Alternatively, it’s called factory automation if the field and applications are related more to the general manufacturing environment.”
“Automation industry addresses the design, development, production, and application of devices and systems that sense, measure and control industrial processes and manufacturing operations. This includes domains of basic continuous control, discrete, sequencing and manufacturing control, advanced control, reliability, safety and electrical controls, related software development and integration, deployment and maintenance, he adds.”
Leading academia and industry stalwarts emphasise that understanding the principles of automation will enable engineers across various industries to demonstrate new competencies that global leadership demands. These include asset management, production engineering and simulation, energy conservation, material handling and packaging, mechatronics, material and human safety, quality of work and environment, and tracking and tracing systems.
“Operator and machine safety are important issues and there are global standards and risk management practices that machine and equipment designers must begin adhering to. Industrial automation helps in implementing and monitoring safety and machine failure. It’s only logical that the more critical the situation, more the care to be taken while specifying the standard or practice that needs to apply,” informs Wadhwa.
Big demand, low supply
Automation industry needs people having electrical, electronics and instrumentation background. But there is a huge demand-supply gap for these engineers, though India has done a great job in terms of creating a good number of technical institutes.
“There were entrepreneurs and thinkers who realised that there is going to be a huge requirement of engineering talent in times to come. So they created a lot of private institutes and colleges, which churn out hundreds and thousands of engineers every year. However, very few of these graduates are actually ready for the industry. In fact, according to studies done by Mckinsey and Nasscom, only one-fourth of the graduates are ready for the industry,” informs Sabih Ahmad Kidwai, head-human resources (HR), Rockwell Automation India.
Automation industry is very niche. The industry itself is in a nascent stage in India and so we don’t have a huge talent pool available for the industry. On top of it, there are very few colleges that actually teach automation effectively.
“Most automation tasks require the engineer to be on-site, which means a lot of travelling and outdoor work. Those who prefer a comfortable environment—sitting all day in front of a computer in a controlled temperature—will definitely not like the automation field and should not think about automation as a career,” says Raj Singh Rathee, managing director, Kuka Robotics (India).
As for opportunities available, one can get into project, application, design or sales engineering. Then there are roles for industry experts. Of course, these are not for freshers but people who have been in the industry over a period of time. For example, there are power generation experts who know a power generation unit’s in and out. They know where automation is working, how automation would save energy or increase speed, and so on.
The main metric is grip on control. And as a design professional, you are expected to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to design practical control loop as per that metric. If you can achieve these, instrumentation and maintenance related solutions will be automatically on your fingertips. To make maximum use of the situation, you need to have expertise to survive in the global-quality working environment of automation.
Automation is a very technical field and therefore domain expertise and knowledge of processes is very important. Because of the technology-driven nature of this field, professionals must at all times keep
The opportunities in industrial automation are widening due to:
1. The increase in the number of
companies going in for automation
2. Better product quality expectation
3. Higher level of automation in the
4. More areas getting integrated in
5. Increase in the productivity
—Raj Singh Rathee, managing director,
Kuka Robotics (India)
themselves abreast of the latest improvements and technological upgradations that are taking place, instead of narrowly focusing on their departmental concerns.
For a fresh engineering graduate, the salary could start from Rs 350,000- 400,000 per annum. It could go well up to Rs 600,000 per annum for graduates from engineering institutes like IITs. However, the scene is not so encouraging for diploma holders.
You could start at a junior level as part of a major project and grow to become a project leader in 10-12 years’ time frame. In most cases, salaries are proportional to the cost of the projects. Notably, the salary is on the higher side for design section.
What’s expected from candidates
Candidates willing to take up a career in automation should have electrical, electronics and communication, instrumentation and control, or computer engineering background. They are expected to have an orientation for fundamentals of automation. It helps if the candidate has done some work in automation lab of his college.
“Courses available in colleges are bachelor’s degree in different areas of technology such as electronics and communication, computers, instrumentation and control engineering, electrical engineering, information technology and mechanical engineering. In addition, there are courses available at the postgraduate level in different specialisations,” informs Dr Alok Prakash Mittal, professor and head, Division of Instrumentation & Control Engineering, Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology.
Recruiters also look for the learning aptitude in candidates. The selected candidates will have to spend initial few years to move around and learn. This is unlike the IT industry where engineers sit in an air-conditioned office in a fancy building. Only those who are willing to fold their sleeves, hop on to a bus and go to plants at far-flung places around the country to learn and deliver are going to make it big.
“Anyone who has to grow in this field must have a field experience. So experience is more important than qualification for higher levels,” says Rathee.
Rockwell Automation does campus selection. “We don’t look for technology prowess, we just want the candidates to be aware of automation fundamentals— like what is automation, what are the tools and components, how are these connected, and how does a programmable logic controller (PLC) or supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) work. We look for people who are agile to the environment and have some curricular engagement. Thus we look for a holistic personality. We prefer candidates who are well-read and aware, and who have opinion on the environment around us—whether it’s technical, political or social,” informs Kidwai.
Once a candidate is selected, “We provide extensive on-job training, coaching and counselling. Apart from that, there is a lot of classroom or hands-on training. Normally, the programme is one-year long—three months in the classroom and nine months on the job,” adds Kidwai.
Fundamentals go a long way
You need to understand automation elements from both the theoretical and practical point of view.
Automation is a step beyond mechanisation. It is the use of control systems (such as numerical control, programmable logic control and other industrial control systems), along with other applications of information technology (such as computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing), to control industrial machinery and processes, thereby reducing the need for human intervention.
Different types of automation tools exist: Artificial neural network, distributed control system, human-machine interface, SCADA, PLC, programmable automation controller, instrumentation, motion control and robotics.
A simple process control loop consists of a measurement system, a controller and a final control element.
Keep abreast of emerging trends
To get an edge over your competitors, learn advanced process control with respect to the underlying theory, implementation studies, the benefits that its applications will bring and projections of future trends.
In particular, the following trends are redefining automation:
Industrial wireless. Wireless connectivity is lowering the consumption of copper cabling, and associated costs of laying cable trenches and securing the safety of networks that cut across hazardous or difficult-to-reach zones. So automation systems can cover more sensory points and relay important information to moving personnel, bringing down the potential response times.
Embedded intelligence and machine- to-machine (M2M) communications. With increasing memory and computing power, embedded intelligence will grow. And so will M2M and M2H (machine-to-human) communications. These will force adoption of interface standards like OMAC. Understanding these nuances is important to redefine productivity and flexibility norms in future factories. With better understanding, engineers will also be able to integrate energy management and environment control strategies with different kinds of recipe management or production cycles.
Web services and applications integration. Maintenance and audit functions can now be conducted without specialists having to fly down to the machine location. They can connect through Web services. If a human intervention (change of parts or in the application software) is needed, the local person can be guided to make the change.
Real-time information to boost productivity. Real-time access to information is an essential feature of industrial automation systems as these are meant to execute control commands to the process. Recent developments in the area of ‘real-time’ production control have been captured in the shape of manufacturing execution systems. This is a great management tool in the hands of operational personnel.
Robots. Lighter and smarter robots are dominant in fast-moving consumer goods assembly and specialised packaging. Within the core manufacturing such as automotive, the trend of heavy duty robots is seen, with designs for payloads lower than 100 kg. These require about 25 per cent less space, while being consistently more robust and having significantly lower maintenance requirements.
There are bound to be implications of the global turmoil in India as well but on a mid-term and long-term horizon, things do look good. After all, we are a big country with a lot of potential for automation for want of improvement in quality, manufacturing time or safety. So it is quite encouraging to work in this segment. The concept of a no-man factory is far-fetched; there could be work cells or process zones that are well automated and unmanned, but even these would need human surveillance or intervention for maintenance as mechanical parts are prone to long-term wear.
The author is an executive editor at EFY