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What is a Controls Engineer? Responsibilities & Career Path

14 Jun, 2024 - By Hoang Duyen

The whirring of factory machines, the smooth operation of climate control systems in buildings, even the precise movements of robots on assembly lines – these are all thanks, in part, to the invisible hand of Controls Engineers. If you're fascinated by automation, enjoy a challenge, and have an aptitude for engineering, then a career as a Controls Engineer might be the perfect fit for you.

This article dives deep into the world of Controls Engineers, exploring what they do, how to become one, and the earning potential this career path offers. So, buckle up and get ready to unlock the secrets of automation!

What is a Controls Engineer?

what is a controls engineer

A Controls Engineer is a professional responsible for designing, developing, and implementing systems that control machinery and processes. These systems are often part of automated manufacturing or production environments, ensuring that operations run smoothly, efficiently, and safely. 

Control engineers play a crucial role in a wide range of industries, including manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, and energy. In essence, they act as the translators between the physical world and the world of automated control.

What does a Controls Engineer do?

A Controls Engineer is responsible for designing, developing, implementing, and maintaining control systems to ensure machinery and processes operate efficiently and safely. Here are the key tasks and responsibilities of a Controls Engineer:

what does a controls engineer do

Design and Development

Controls Engineer analyzes existing systems or processes to identify areas for improvement or automation. Based on this analysis, they design control systems using their knowledge of physics, mathematics, and engineering principles.

As a controls engineer specializing in control systems design, the primary focus is on creating sophisticated systems that utilize both hardware and software to automate and manage machinery and industrial processes effectively. Their tasks are developing control systems capable of regulating critical variables such as temperature, pressure, flow rate, and speed. Integrating advanced technologies and engineering principles ensures optimal performance, reliability, and safety in various industrial applications.

Instrumentation plays a pivotal role in the work process as control engineers specify and design sensors, actuators, and other instrumentation devices. These instruments are crucial for measuring and controlling physical quantities within industrial environments, ensuring precise monitoring and adjustment of processes. 

Component Selection and Integration

Controls Engineers choose the right hardware components, like sensors and actuators, to gather data and influence the system. They also select the appropriate software and control algorithms to translate sensor data into actions for the actuators. It ensures the system functions as intended.

Programming and Implementation

The controls engineer's primary responsibilities in software development are to write, test, and debug software programs tailored for control systems. Controls engineer utilizing specialized programming languages such as ladder logic and employing tools like Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs). 

System integration is another vital aspect of the role, focusing on seamlessly integrating newly developed or upgraded control systems with existing machinery and production lines. Control engineers meticulously assess compatibility requirements, troubleshoot potential issues, and optimize system performance to enhance overall operational efficiency.

Testing and Validation

testing and validation

Once the control system is designed, control engineers put it through its paces. They test and commission the system to ensure it meets performance requirements and functions flawlessly. This progress is simulations, lab testing, and finally, on-site implementation.

  • Prototyping: Develop and test prototypes of control systems in a controlled environment to validate their functionality, performance, and reliability.

  • Troubleshooting: Diagnose and resolve issues in control systems during testing and after implementation to ensure they operate correctly.

Maintenance and Support

Even the best-designed systems can encounter issues. Controls Engineers are responsible for troubleshooting malfunctions, identifying root causes, and implementing solutions to keep the system running smoothly. They may also perform regular maintenance to prevent problems before they arise.

Compliance and Safety

Adherence to industry standards, safety regulations, and best practices is paramount in ensuring the reliability and safety of control systems. One of the primary responsibilities involves meticulously ensuring that all designed control systems comply with relevant industry standards and regulatory requirements. It includes standards such as ISO, ANSI, IEC, and specific safety regulations applicable to industrial settings.

In addition to compliance, control engineers must risk management within control systems. They conduct comprehensive risk assessments to identify potential hazards and vulnerabilities that could impact system performance or pose safety risks.

Documentation

Comprehensive documentation encompasses design specifications, user manuals, and maintenance procedures. These documents provide essential guidance for installation technicians, operators, and maintenance personnel, ensuring the proper functioning and longevity of control systems.

Control engineers also generate detailed reports on various aspects of control systems. They document system performance metrics, outcomes of testing procedures, and the overall status of ongoing projects. These reports are essential for stakeholders such as project managers, executives, and regulatory bodies, enabling informed decision-making and ensuring alignment with project objectives and timelines.

How to Become a Controls Engineer?

how to become a controls engineer

The path to becoming a Controls Engineer involves a combination of education, relevant experience, and skill development. Here's a roadmap to guide you:

Step 1 - Educational Background

An educational foundation is crucial for a successful career as a Controls Engineer. While there's no single "perfect" degree path, certain engineering disciplines provide the necessary knowledge and skills to excel in this field. 

High School Education

Students should focus on mathematics courses such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus to build a basic understanding of mathematical principles. Physics courses, especially those covering mechanics, electricity, and magnetism, are crucial for understanding the operational principles of control systems. 

Additionally, familiarity with computer programming and basic software tools through computer science courses is highly beneficial. If available, students should take electives in electronics, robotics, and engineering to gain practical experience.

Undergraduate Education

The next step in becoming a controls engineer is completing a bachelor's degree in a relevant field, such as Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Mechatronics, or Computer Engineering. 

During the undergraduate program, students will study core subjects, including advanced mathematics (calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, and statistics), advanced physics (mechanics, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics), and control systems (control theory, feedback systems, and stability analysis). 

Besides, coursework will cover electronics (circuit analysis, digital systems, and microprocessors), computer science (programming languages, algorithms, and data structures), and mechanical systems (dynamics, kinematics, and robotics). Laboratory courses will provide hands-on experience with control systems, sensors, and actuators.

  • Electrical Engineering (EE): This is a classic choice, offering a comprehensive understanding of electrical circuits, control systems principles, and automation technologies. Courses in electronics, power systems, and control theory are particularly valuable.

  • Mechanical Engineering (ME): While not directly focused on controls, a Mechanical Engineering degree provides a strong foundation in mechanics, motion control, and physical systems. This knowledge is essential for understanding how controls interact with mechanical components. Courses in robotics, mechatronics, and dynamics can be especially beneficial.

  • Mechatronics Engineering: This rapidly growing field combines elements of mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering. It's a perfect choice if you're interested in the intersection of controls and physical systems. Courses in embedded systems, robotics, and control theory are highly relevant.

  • Automation Engineering: This specialized degree program directly focuses on automation technologies, control systems, and industrial automation principles. This path provides a focused skillset tailored for controls engineering careers.

Graduate Education

Although not mandatory, completing a master's or doctoral degree in fields such as control systems, automation, robotics, or related areas is highly advantageous. 

In a master's program, students have the opportunity to delve deeper into subjects like nonlinear control systems, adaptive and robust control, digital control systems, and industrial automation. Research projects and practical work allow them to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world problems. For those aiming for a career in research or academia, obtaining a Ph.D. opens up further opportunities.

Additional Training and Certifications

In addition to formal education, participating in training programs and earning professional certifications is important. 

The Professional Engineer (PE) license is required for senior positions and certain industries. The Certified Automation Professional (CAP) certification, offered by the International Society of Automation (ISA), is also valuable. Additionally, the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification is useful for those in project management roles. 

Continuous learning through industry workshops, webinars, and conferences is crucial for staying current in the field.

Step 2 - Skills Development

Control engineers need to develop both technical and soft skills. 

Develop Technical Skills

Proficiency in PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) programming, SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems, and HMI (Human-Machine Interface) design is crucial. Mastery of these software tools enables control engineers to design, implement, and troubleshoot complex control systems effectively. 

Additionally, control engineers should familiarize themselves with industrial communication protocols such as Modbus, Ethernet/IP, and Profibus. These protocols facilitate seamless communication between various components of an industrial system. Understanding instrumentation principles further enhances a controls engineer’s ability to measure and control physical quantities accurately, ensuring optimal system performance.

Build Soft Skills

Developing robust analytical and problem-solving abilities is crucial for diagnosing issues and optimizing control systems. Equally important are effective communication skills, as control engineers frequently collaborate with multidisciplinary teams and must convey complex technical information clearly to non-technical stakeholders. This ability to bridge the gap between technical and non-technical team members ensures smooth project execution and fosters a collaborative work environment. 

Step 3 - Experience

experience

Real-world experience forms the foundation of a successful career as a controls engineer.

  • Internships or Entry-Level Roles: Look for internships or entry-level positions in industrial automation, building automation, or related fields. You will have an environment to apply classroom knowledge to real-world projects and develop practical skills.

  • Focus on Relevant Projects: Within your experience, you should actively seek out opportunities to work on projects involving control systems. You can undertake tasks like assisting senior engineers with system design, testing, or troubleshooting.

Step 4 - Stay Updated

The world of automation is constantly evolving, and control engineers who maintain a commitment to continuous learning are the ones who thrive in this dynamic field. 

Continuous Learning

Online platforms such as Coursera, edX, Udacity, and LinkedIn Learning offer numerous courses in control systems, automation, robotics, and related fields. Regularly enrolling in these courses allows you to stay current with the latest advancements and tools. 

Additionally, obtaining advanced certifications like the Certified Automation Professional (CAP) by the International Society of Automation (ISA) or specialized courses in PLC programming, SCADA systems, and robotics can significantly enhance your expertise and employability.

Industry Conferences and Workshops

Attending industry conferences and workshops is another effective way to stay updated. Events like the IEEE Conference on Control Technology and Applications (CCTA), the American Control Conference (ACC), and the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) provide insights into cutting-edge research, emerging technologies, and best practices. 

Professional Journals and Publications

Leading academic journals such as IEEE Transactions on Control Systems Technology, Journal of Process Control, and Control Engineering Practice publish peer-reviewed articles on the newest advancements in the field. 

Moreover, industry magazines like Control Engineering, Automation World, and Industrial Automation News offer practical insights, case studies, and product reviews, keeping you up-to-date with industry trends and innovations.

Professional Associations

Joining professional associations like the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and ISA (International Society of Automation) provides access to exclusive resources, technical papers, standards, and networking opportunities. Membership in these organizations allows you to stay connected with the global community of control engineers. 

Networking with Peers and Industry Experts

Engage in online communities and forums such as Reddit's r/ControlTheory, Stack Exchange’s Control Engineering section, and LinkedIn groups related to control systems and automation. These platforms allow you to ask questions, share knowledge, and stay informed about industry trends. 

You can attend networking events, meetups, and technical talks provide opportunities to connect with peers and industry experts, offering valuable insights and potential collaborations.

Influential Blogs and Podcasts

Blogs by industry leaders, companies, and technical experts provide practical tips, tutorials, and updates on the latest trends and technologies. Podcasts such as "The Automation Podcast" and "IoT for All" offer insights from industry experts and discussions on emerging trends, keeping you informed and inspired.

Subscribing to professional journals and industry magazines is crucial for staying informed about the latest research and developments in control engineering.

Controls Engineer Salary

controls engineer salary

According to Indeed, (Indeed is a giant in the online job search world. It acts as a one-stop shop for both job seekers and employers, offering a variety of features to streamline the hiring process. With over 350 million unique monthly visitors and more than 3.5 million employers using Indeed to hire, it operates in over 60 countries. Extensive reach and robust user base make Indeed a pivotal tool for both job seekers and employers worldwide.) the average salary for a Controls Engineer in the United States is $86,874 per year, with 10,200 salaries reported. This data represents a large and reliable dataset, providing control engineers with a benchmark to understand their worth in the job market.

The reported average salary signifies the value placed on the specialized skills and expertise of control engineers across the country. However, it's important to note that actual salaries can vary widely depending on factors such as geographic location, industry demand, level of experience, and specific employers.

Higher salaries in cities like Orlando ($114,995), San Diego ($104,530), and Cleveland ($103,636) may be attributed to factors such as local demand for engineering talent, cost of living, industry specialization, and the presence of major employers in sectors that heavily rely on controls engineering expertise.

Conclusion

This article has explored the exciting world of Controls Engineers, delving into their responsibilities, the educational background needed for success, and the strategies for building a strong professional network. The potential for career growth and a competitive salary are additional incentives to consider this rewarding career path.

Whether you're a recent graduate or an experienced professional seeking a new challenge, Controls Engineering offers a dynamic and fulfilling career path. Are you ready to take control of your future and join the ever-evolving world of automation?

To become a controls engineer, one must build a solid educational foundation and necessary skills. These important skills can be enhanced when you enroll in Skilltrans courses. We have many valuable lessons to help you reach your dreams most effectively.

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Hoang Duyen

Meet Hoang Duyen, an experienced SEO Specialist with a proven track record in driving organic growth and boosting online visibility. She has honed her skills in keyword research, on-page optimization, and technical SEO. Her expertise lies in crafting data-driven strategies that not only improve search engine rankings but also deliver tangible results for businesses.

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