Learnings from an Automation Engineer
Published on : Wednesday 07-04-2021
The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you, says Rajalakshmi Hegde.
Learning does not stop at graduation, Masters or Doctorates. These degrees are mere stepping stones to the next level of learning. You switch from a theoretical school to a more practical based learning.
In days when the internet was almost not known of, we started our careers and learned as much as we could on the job. You could not read too much of what the company required you to do, what skills you may need to acquire for your job. I remember the time when I knew ladder logic as a concept but did not know how the machine running used the ladder logic. However, I had learnt higher-level languages like ANSI C and C++ which was the trend with Y2K requirements and engineers from all fields shifting to IT and programming. As a junior just starting my career, my seniors would teach me instruction lists and ladder. To think in the form of flowcharts or algorithms was easy but to write the same into ladder wasn't an easy journey and I did not learn much until I commissioned my first machine, where my seniors helped me understand a better way of coding. My colleague taught me a few basics of writing machine logic:
1. To write down the inputs and the outputs related to the machine.
2. Then check to make each output on what the interlocks in terms of inputs.
3. Do you have critical points where you need to take extra care and trigger a message or alarm?
4. What kind of timers or functions you may require and what are the parameters you need to use for these function blocks?
These points still stay true today and any machine coding could start with these basics. So thus, I put my first step successfully into automating a machine and went from simple to complex algorithms.
Reach out and seek help, it helps you progress in your career
What I also realised as I write this, all colleagues were loaded with their projects too and had I not asked for help, I would not get the right help.
Do not let your ego come in your way. You may be the best student in college, but some life experiences need to be learnt. They don't come automatically to you unless you make mistakes, unless you ask for help and unless you analyse. Even today, when I am stuck on a particular problem, I like to do a brainstorm with my colleagues to find some answers. It could also happen that you don't find answers but, in the process, you learn and share many ideas and experiences.
Automation being driven by technology and innovation, we must be up to date with the knowledge, new products and implementation. Ready to apply them on machines adapting to new technologies. Tomorrow is generally too late to learn new concepts. As colleagues during my initial days we always took an hour after office to go to each desk and see what the other colleagues implemented or were implementing. Similarly, if we learned and tried something new, it could be the smallest of learnings, we would share with each other. This set a routine, and each would learn something new and share with others and the group grew together. We knew who the go-to person in terms for a particular technology or subject was. This concept was so strong we slowly started having formal sessions on sharing with the group where new joiners as well as the experienced joined to get an upgraded knowledge base.
Overcome the barriers of sticking to only mainstream
For the benefit of all I would like to share that my Day One did not start with Automation related or product related training. Today there is an expectation that a detailed training is imparted before the job is started. During the 90s, training was learning on the job. It could mean any job.
Sometimes there were no strict definitions of job roles and I remember as an Automation Engineer, I managed IT resources, sometimes the mail server, for months together handled exhibitions, some days were wiring the panels that required dispatches, made presentations that Sales could use during their visits or exhibitions. None of the above activities directly contributed to machine programming, or commissioning or Automation in general. I had the hunger to learn and so with a “Never say No”, attitude to all work that came my way I worked on these tasks with utmost dedication and at the end of the day I could confidently handle IT related queries when the need arose, or create a quick presentation for my own training or meetings.
At some point, I began to also help others create presentations for their meetings and was an expert at it. Handling exhibitions meant dealing with a lot of colleagues internally as well as externally and I learnt networking with people and the processes that were involved in exhibitions, which later helped me in my career. I also managed to service and test products that were defective and diagnose the errors. In short, don’t be afraid to take up a task which you think is not related to your career or your mainstream. Each task could bring with it a lot of learning and experience that helps you deal with people and your team and helps you understand the nitty gritty of work. It also helps you to become a hands-on manager as you progress on your career path.
Dare to discuss and envisage
As a sole woman employee in the organisation, commissioning work was not assigned to me. I would be given work that would qualify as a backend task. Testing new products and creating a working application for these products that the project engineers would use; these were among the few tasks assigned to me. I waited for a day when I would get to do a real project. The day did not arrive, so I gathered the courage to discuss with my manager and he was happy to hear that I was ready to go to a site and take charge of any commissioning that came my way. Thus, started my journey of programming and commissioning as an automation engineer. The discussion also helped me understand that as a management they were not sure if I was ready to explore the site conditions that are sometimes remote, sometimes difficult to approach and communication was made difficult due to the fact that we did not have mobile phones back in those days. All we had was a STD booth or the landline in the company that we worked at.
Those days I always wondered why I was being treated differently. With frowns from many and disbelief in my ability to work on shop floors, both internally and at the customer’s end, I started visiting sites. Now looking back, I realize had I not had that discussion with my manager, I probably would never have commissioned machines and would have never seen the application of the theories that I had learnt. What do we learn here? It’s important to ask questions because asking costs nothing. I sincerely thank my then managers Mr Sunil Mehta and Mr Devdatta Hambardikar who gave me a chance to venture into these unknown areas as a woman employee and explore the umpteen opportunities of machine automation, an area that still delights me, and feeds me with immense knowledge even today.
Mr P V Sivaram, my previous MD, would always say, “At the end of the day, you should have learnt one small thing, however small it may be” It could be learning a new formula in Excel or learning a new word. I have strictly followed it till today and continue to do so. During my days as a trainer, I was disappointed that I must repeat the same books again and again. I decided to speak to Mr Sivaram. He told me that every time you teach, your target audience is different, and you come out learning something new from each session, a lesson I will never forget. I was lucky enough to have great mentors and bosses to help me in my journey and career with their experience and knowledge.
Words that inspire me: “I maintained my edge by always being a student; you will always have something new to learn.” - Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Rajalakshmi Hegde is Strategic Account Manager – Global EU’s at B&R Industrial Automation, A keen learner and ready to explore new challenges at work. Serving customers with solution based and value-added services is my key focus area. Two and a half decades of career experience in Industrial Automation. Have trained several engineers in the field of Industrial Automation within company and educational institutes. Networking, relationship building, Team and project management are key elements on my personal career journey.