Careers in Automation: What You Need to Get Started
| By: John Lewis, Contributing Editor
It’s a great time get started on a career in automation. After all, demand for robots has never been stronger as more industries look to automation to increase productivity and alleviate ongoing labor shortages. Association for Advancing Automation (A3) statistics show that the number of robots sold in 2021 rose 28% over 2020, making 2021 the strongest year ever. Market- and customer-based research consultancy Forrester expects increased demand to continue.
According to Craig Le Clair, Forrester’s vice president and principal analyst, the global worker shortage is pushing about 35% of companies to invest in automation that specifically augments the abilities of both manufacturing and service workers. These data bode well for job seekers interested in a career in automation, whether in the traditional manufacturing arena or in new roles starting to sprout up in the service sector.
Before getting started on a career in automation it’s important to assess not only your goals but also your interests, background, talents, and character. There is no shortage of possible roles in automation. In addition to project management, accounting, tech support, sales, marketing, customer service, and entry-level jobs of all types, there are more skilled and technical roles in engineering, product development, and production.
Interest Is Key
As with almost every other field, interest in the trade is a key to success — as is interest in learning more about the field and interest in advancement. If you’re interested in cars, you could pursue a career in the automotive industry. Both automotive manufacturers and their tier-1 automotive suppliers need to buy and deploy automation to make high-quality vehicles and parts at competitive prices.
If electronics piques your interest, you could consider the semiconductor or electronics industry, where there are automation jobs in wafer fabrication, electronic assembly, and the affiliated capital equipment manufacturing. These companies need to stay ahead of technology trends, acquire intellectual property, and manage time-to-market challenges for their manufacturing customers, all the while integrating the latest innovations in equipment used to manufacture semiconductor and electronic devices such as computer chips and printed circuit boards. Options abound. Automation spans every vertical market you can think of, from medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and consumer packaged goods to logistics, chemical processing, power, energy, and water. Just take your pick.
Understand the Types of Automation Companies
No affinity for any particular industry or market? No problem. Start an automation career at a company that manufactures automation components, sells automation software, or provides automation services. Such a position will likely expose you to a variety of different industries. Some of the most interesting jobs at these companies are in product development and marketing, but you can also get started with an entry-level position with shipping and receiving or as an assembly technician.
If you want exposure to a great variety of automation technologies, consider starting your career at a distributor. Distributors typically buy noncompeting products and product lines and sell them directly to end users or other customers, such as system integrators or machine builders. Some distributors prefer to be called value-added resellers because they supply customized products or services, including technical support, warranties, and service programs, to enhance the value of the third-party products they sell.
If you’re looking for exposure to even more markets and technologies, you might consider starting your career in automation at a system integrator. System integrators specialize in bringing together components and subsystems to ensure they all function together properly.
A Complex Sales Channel
Automation improves quality, reduces costs, and increases throughput to boost operating margins. If you’re starting out on a career in automation, understanding the value chain and sales channel complexities of the business can be helpful during the interview process.
In the automation business, all the different types of companies mentioned above sell directly and/or indirectly to manufacturers that use automation to improve their operations. For example, a vision system component manufacturer might sell directly to a large strategic end user such as Ford Motor Company. Or it might indirectly sell to the company through machine builders and system integrators supplying automation equipment and solutions to Ford or through distributors that serve Ford’s smaller or more remote plants.
Similarly, a vision system component supplier might sell directly to a capital equipment manufacturer or indirectly through a system integrator supplying a subsystem for the manufacturer or even through a distributor to a system integrator or machine builder.
The lenses, lighting, and cameras needed for machine vision are crucial for advancing automated systems, so a career in optical engineering is an excellent way to shape the future of automation. Image courtesy of Edmund Optics
Keep Your Desired Lifestyle in Mind
Do you want a 9 to 5 schedule? Do you like a job involving travel? Do you want to commute to on-site work every day or have the choice to work remotely? Would you prefer the stability of a desk job or would you rather work with your hands on the shop floor or at customer sites in the field?
Do you prefer working in a climate-controlled environment or are temperature extremes acceptable to you? These are all important factors to consider. For example, a technical position at a system integrator would be a good choice for those who want to travel and work out of town for days or weeks at a time.
It’s not surprising that David Dechow, vice president of outreach and vision technology at Landing AI, finds the integration side to be extremely interesting. “Working at a system integrator is extremely diverse in terms of the technologies, the markets, and the applications that you’re exposed to, and that’s what has made it so interesting to me over the years,” he explains. “I don’t think there’s a tremendous downside.”
Also keep in mind the size of the company. Some system integrators employ just one or two people. Such small companies may not be able to offer the same benefits or stability that an end-user manufacturer or a component supplier can. If you prefer more security in a job, working at a manufacturer or one of the larger system integrators might be a good choice.
Background and Character Are Key
The only constant in the field of automation is change. “There’s a lot to learn in automation, and a lot of it’s in the details,” says Steve Kinney, director of training, compliance, and technical solutions at Smart Vision Lights. “It’s not that you must have a PhD or high-end degrees to advance. It’s more about learning the business — what’s going on, what’s important — and understanding your customers’ needs.”
Whether you’re working on a high school diploma, pursuing a certificate at a community college, or working toward a four-year college degree, there are plenty of opportunities to get started in a career in automation. People with the right mentality build the strongest companies. As in any other field, automation hiring managers are seeking people with the right mentality. A good work ethic and a can-do attitude are often more valued than a particular skill set.
“I’ve always looked for a willingness to learn and interest in learning and interest in trying,” explains Dechow. “Interest, and an observable capability to succeed at trying new things.”
Learn from the success of others. Looking at how they navigate their careers can help you plan for yours. Career paths usually aren’t linear, and everyone moves at their own pace, but it’s important to understand what career transitions to make and what skills will be required. You might start as an intern doing electrical wiring or assembly at a small system integrator and within a few years work your way up to being a PLC or HMI programmer. Regardless, a great place to learn about getting started in an automation career is right here at www.automate.org.