Industrial Automation – My Story
By: Steve Novak
I’ve been an Industrial Automation Specialist for over 30 years and this is my story.
By 1985 I was a young, 20 something in desperate need of a career direction. I had taken a shot at becoming an Aircraft Mechanic out of High School and even spent a year at a local College getting trained. My Dad had owned several light aircraft throughout my childhood and I loved flying machines. My parents and younger brother had a near fatal crash in 1974 that left them stranded on a frozen, mountain lake in the dead of winter for 24 hours with terrible injuries. It’s quite a story and finally I wrote a book about it in 2015, feel free to download it here.
Perhaps because of this tragic event, I felt less inclined to do the actual flying, but still wanted to be near the aircraft. So, I opted to become an aircraft grease monkey, which is exactly what I looked like after spending a day under the cowls of a DC-3 (greasy 3).
But this was the early 80s and the economy in western Canada was incredibly bleak. The National Energy Bill created by the Liberal party had completely destroyed the O&G sector, which in turn killed almost everything else. My first job as an AME (Aircraft Maintenance Engineer) was for only $5/hour. I was making more than that as a 16 year kid during a summer oilfield job painting pump-jacks. Working on planes was long hours, dirty and nothing like I imagined it would be. I wanted out.
I had a uncle who owned a trucking company in Wisconsin and he asked if I wanted to try driving semis. I thought anything is better than this, so at 21 I packed everything I owned into my 1976 Plymouth Volare’ and headed south. I then spend the next year driving trucks between Milwaukee and the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas. I saw some incredible country, but hated this even more than aircraft. Being trapped inside an air conditioned truck cab while pretty girls whizzed by on the freeway in convertibles was not for me.
After failed attempts at Aircraft Maintenance & Truck Driving I needed a new Career
I returned to Canada in my faithful Volare’ with $2000 US in my pocket after a year of driving trucks thru some of the biggest cities in America. I grabbed another truck driving job to keep the money rolling in while I contemplated my next move.
Soon after I arrived, a friend of mine, who was an Electrician, told me he was thinking about attending a nearby College to upgrade to an Engineering Technologist (the equivalent of an Associates degree in the US). He invited me to tag along for a meeting with the career councilors at the school. I thought what the heck, I didn’t know anything about electricity, but I was now getting desperate for a career direction. It was during this trip that I rationalized that electricity was used everywhere and therefore, someone who worked with it, would never be out of a job.
So I made the decision to enroll in the Southern Institute of Technology (SAIT) in the Fall of 1986 and take Electrical Engineering Technology (EET). The course took two years and pushed me to the limit academically as I was never a great student. But College life agreed with me and I had a great time ‘socializing’. One of the major hi-lites was the 1988 Olympics which were held in the city where I was attending school, Calgary, Alberta. The Olympic torch relay actually passed right in front of my apartment and it was 2 weeks of non-stop partying with people from all over the world.
I graduated with a Diploma of Technology in Electrical in 1988
After graduating it took me over a month to land my first job in my new chosen, hard fought career. Since I had no idea what I was actually going to be doing as an Electrical Engineering Technologist, I couldn’t wait to find out. But whatever it was, I was looking forward to finally being on the leading edge of technology and doing something incredibly cool. So you can imagine my surprise when I was hired by Colt Engineering in Calgary to do manual drafting!
I thought there had to be some kind of mistake. I was trained to calculate the copper losses of motor windings using differential equations and they wanted me to draw pictures! I lasted exactly 3 weeks before taking a job with another company. But here I made a critical error. The company I left provided engineering services for the industrial sector, mostly Oil & Gas. The new company worked exclusively in municipal and commercial – schools, office building, etc.
Commercial projects are simplistic compared with Industrial. I soon grew tired of designing systems that contained lights, fire alarms and door bells. So after a year of this I returned back to Oil & Gas.
Now my real education began. I was thrown into the deep end by a supervisor who was willing to let me bite off as much as I could. This was now the late 80s and the economy had fully recovered, in fact it was downright crazy. I went from making $15 to $27/hour in 2 short years. The project I was on, the Husky Upgrader in Lloydminster, Alberta was a multi-Billion dollar money making machine for the EPCMs who built it. I rode that wave right along with them and ended up doing all the platform lighting and heat tracing design and drafting (with AutoCad this time) for several huge process units.
After Husky started winding down I moved onto a company that had a large contract with a big Natural Gas producer. I was placed in charge of all the electrical design and drafting on 100s of gas wells. In doing this I had to work closely with the Automation group for the first time. Although we had been introduced to PLC programming in College, I had not touched a controller since. But now I found myself envying these guys. Whereas I was trapped at my desk for up to 12 hours per day, they got to drive out to site and actually see what we were building and make stuff run.
I decided I needed to make another career adjustment and took steps to gravitate towards PLC programming and industrial automation. It wasn’t easy as no one was willing to let me take a shot at writing a program without any experience. But I finally got a break and was assigned to a project that no one else had time to do.
What the heck is a PID Controller?
I was having a meeting in my now role as a programmer with the client’s automation team when they started yammering about something called a PID Controller. I had no idea what they were talking about, I had never heard of such a strange device. I finally got brave enough to ask where this ‘PID’ thing existed as I didn’t recall seeing it on any of my electrical drawings. They looked at me like I was on crack and said it was software inside the PLC and made the valves open and close. Needless to say I felt like a complete idiot and swore that would be the last time I would ever look that dumb again. Turned out it was just the first of many.
I then spent the next 20 years writing code for Oil & Gas facilities all over Canada, the US (including Alaska) and even a few international assignments like Bangladesh and Indonesia. I could write a book on those two experiences alone. I saw the evolution of the industrial automation world grow from a single controller with lamp boxes for alarm annunciation to the advent of multiple PLCs connected to banks of HMIs. The learning curve has been 90 degrees the entire time. As computer technology exploded, so did automation. I never did a single job where all the software and hardware was the same from the last job. Something always changed or was completely new and I would have to learn it from scratch.
Before the internet came along, we had little to no support when out in the field as many of the sites I visited didn’t even have a land line phone. Therefore, I travelled with boxes full of technical manuals for when I would get into trouble, which was often.
As PLCs got more powerful the jobs I worked on got bigger as well. Now instead of having 50 IO points, I was programming on projects that had 3000 – 5000 IO points across dozens of PLCs all exchanging data with each other.
Advice for aspiring Industrial Automation Keyboard Jockeys
After a 30 plus year Industrial Automation Specialist career I must say I’ve learned a lot. In fact I’ve probably already forgotten more than I currently retain. It’s literally dizzying the amount of tiny details someone like me needs to know when creating a system from scratch, designing it, creating the system architecture, specifying the control hardware & software, configuring it, testing it, commissioning it and documenting everything along the way.
I have few regrets as this career has been very good to me. It’s probably the most bang for your buck you can get. Back in the day, I was able to enter this industrial automation sector with only a 2 year college diploma and less than 20 years later I was making more than my family Doctor.
But having said that, there are also some big downsides. First and foremost is job security. Because I chose to work with O&G, I was subjected to the famous energy rollercoaster that everyone who works within this space knows about. Just like clockwork, at least once every ten years everything would go for the big flush.
Please let there be another Boom, I promise not to piss it all away this time!
The frustration was off the charts here. Unless you were rich enough to just fly off to Tahiti for 6 months when everything crashed, you would be in a world of hurt. Energy is a bad choice if you’re looking for stability and it’s gotten progressively worse in recent years.
The latest technology is big on robotics and motion control for manufacturing. Sectors that use this type of automation are far less susceptible to wild economic gyrations. Especially food and pharmaceutical manufacturing. People still need to eat during a recession and if anything they need more drugs as well. If you work in those sectors you will be very safe.
Each sector has it’s own unique practices, and industrial automation platforms. Choose wisely before investing years of high wattage brain power to learn them.
In the new post-Covid business world, there will most likely be more emphasis on working freelance and remotely as well. A fair chunk of what we do can be done from home as it involves a lot of head down, arse-up time. Site trips are inevitable at some point, but that is what keeps it interesting. Seeing things run in real time is probably the most rewarding part of what we do. As an electrical designer I rarely got to see the fruit of my labors.
Freelancing will become the New Normal
Several years ago I was working on a job in northern Alberta when I was suddenly cut free. I was driven to the local airport and dropped off at the curb where I had to pay for my own flight home. I was furious when I got home and the next morning I jumped on the internet looking for my next ‘gig’. About an hour into it, I started thinking that this is a colossal waste of time. LinkedIn, Indeed, Monster – it’s such a grind practicing spray and pray with my resume.
I decided right then and there to create a website for industrial automation technical people like me, who need quick, easy access to work when we need it. The result has been Engineering Job Czar. A Freelance Engineering site that is FREE for everyone.
I truly hope that my story will provide useful information to some of you and perhaps mild entertainment for others. My working career isn’t over just yet and the journey continues. The one thing you can always count on 100% in life, is that nothing stays the same for long. Roll with it and try to enjoy the ride!
All The Best!
Industrial Automation Specialist
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I read your article and enjoyed it immensely. Simply because I can relate to your story. We have some similarities. One of the most tedious jobs I had back in the day was with AB PLC 2’s. I had to document someone else’s code. I used Taylor software back then to do it. I also started at the drafting table as well. Oil and Gas have been very good for me as well, but as you said it is a rollercoaster. My first time in Fort McMurray was in 1984. Young knew nothing, but what learning and what a ride.
Thanks John, nice to hear from you. It all went by way too fast. Hope you’re doing well! Steve
Hi Steve, great write up. For sure you are a defined professional in Automation. I am hearing that the gulf coast and neighbouring areas are picking up. All the best. PV