162. Idea – What is a Controls Engineer? Transcript

00:00 Chris: 

Welcome to episode 162 of EECO Asks Why. Today we have one of our very first listeners joining us to give us a breakdown of water controls engineer. Chester Burke has been listening from the beginning and he’s exactly the type of guests that we want to bring on. He’s an expert in his field and he really hits all the need for controls engineers and how versatile that role really can be.

We’re still collecting industry war stories, the good, the tough, the inspiring. So send us those video clips or written entries as a DM on Instagram or Facebook. Check out the link in the show notes. And we look forward to hearing more of your stories. 

Without further ado, let’s dive into our controls, engineered discussion with our longtime listener and first time guests, Chester, Burke, cue the music. 

Welcome to EECO Asks Why. Today we have an idea episode. We’re going to be talking about what is a controls engineer. Now throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to call on a lot of controls engineers and get into plants and work side by side with these men and women had a blast doing it. So excited to talk about this topic today. And I brought in a great controls engineer. His name is Chester Burke, and he is a controls engineer at Cadence, Inc. So welcome Chester. How are you doing?

01:13 Chester: 

I’m good. How are you doing? 

01:15 Chris: 

I’m doing great. I’m doing great. And I think our listeners would like to know. So you’re a long time EECO Asks Why fan? 

01:21 Chester: 

Yes. I’ve been listening to your podcast. I think I first learned about it from an email that EECO sent me and I picked up on your third episode. So I’ve listened to all of them and I’ll tell you what, you have a very good podcast. I listened to a lot of podcasts and you’re very good at it. 

01:38 Chris: 

Thank you. Thank you, sir. You’re the reason why we do it. And I’m excited for this episode because there may be people listening, Chester, that had no idea what a controls engineer is. When they hear that topic, they may have an idea of what an engineer is, but when you put the word controls in front of it that muddies the waters, so speak to that person who’s new out there. How would you define what a control engineer is?

02:00 Chester: 

Well, I can only speak from my perspective. I automate production equipment. I’m an electrical engineer my emphasis is on electrical. I pick out what motors we’ll use, electric motors, what variable frequency drives, what PLC, what sensors, what wiring to connect everything up. I determine how to wire everything up. I do electrical drawings to show people out should be wired up. I do any programming and anything needed electrically. Program HMI’s what screens an operator sees.

02:38 Chris: 

Very cool. So, I mean, across the board with electrical focus, you know, you’ve been doing this for a while, Chester. I’m sure things have evolved over time. So maybe walk us through what has been some of the biggest evolutions in the controls engineer world. 

02:54 Chester: 

Yeah, I’m afraid I’ve been at this since 1992. That is one thing I can say about this career. You are forever learning and I love to learn. I like to read and that’s been one of the things I really like. Things have changed since 1992. I’d say things are easier to do today than they were 30 years ago. Definitely I’ve seen a lot of change when it comes to networking. We started off with RS 4 85 networks, like DeviceNet, prophibus, modbus. Now it’s evolved into ethernet where we have protocols like ethernet, IP, prophinet, Modbus, TCP, and ethernet has evolved from an office type technology to an industrial. We have industrial cables connectors, but all these components are now connected together and they’re all sharing data back and forth, like what they’re doing, what’s happening, what they should be doing.

And it’s evolved into the machine has become like an ethernet LAN, a local area network itself. And nine times out of 10, you’re going to be asked to connect this machine LAN up to your company network. So information can be shared and that opens up another can of worms. You need to be working well with your IT department and because they’re from a world where you click on a button and okay it takes a couple of seconds to, you know, the printer to spool up and start the work we’re in an industrial setting. No, a couple of seconds could shut a whole machine down. So there’s concern with traffic and security and your IT department becomes your friend. 

04:44 Chris: 

No doubt you. And I guess as more and more devices have gotten connected Chester and you hear industry 4.0 and you know, digital transformation, the way the world’s moving towards connected devices, how is that impacting like the monetization efforts? How is the control engineer engaging there to really make that industrial 4.0, the things that people talk about actually come to life? 

05:09 Chester: 

Yeah, that’s kind of up to your employer. How far your company wants to take that? You can definitely get into some pretty high end stuff, say your IT department becomes your friend. You start talking about populating databases with information. What did we run today? How long did it take? What was the temperature in this section? And then that evolves into this stuff called data mining, where you have a mountain of information and what really is important in this application. We’ve definitely come a long way since 1992. 

05:41 Chris: 

Now that the listener out there Chester, you know, we try to really inspire people to take a look at industry and understand the different opportunities that exist. So sometimes it helps if I’m interested in something, give me that inside look of what a day looks like. So maybe paint a picture. What would a typical day or a week, or maybe even a month, maybe a better window of time, look like for a controls engineer for someone in manufacturing, because people may just not have an idea. 

06:10 Chester: 

Well, I cannot say that I’ve ever had two days that were alike. I come to work with goals. I’m going to get this done this morning. I’m going to get this done this afternoon and it might happen. It might not. What I do. I do a lot I guess, what might surprise your listeners or maybe not is I do a lot of communicating. I talk to a lot of people whether it’s a plant manager, whether it’s a department manager, whether it’s a project engineer, whether it’s my coworkers, whether it’s an operator, maintenance, whatever. I do a lot of talking to people face to face emails, you know, software like this, now that we’re in this COVID situation. So we do a lot of communicating where are we at in the project? Are we on schedule? Has there been any problems? What kind of things can we do to help this and that and lots of discussions. 

Sometimes our troubleshooters, in our case, our maintenance people they’ll come to me and say, Hey, can you help us? We have a problem with this machine. You drop everything and you go to help them. And while you’re at it, you try to teach them, you know, what happened in this situation, and this is what we have to do differently. And hopefully they’ll pass it on down to second and third shift. 

When it comes to the actual work, in my particular position, we start with a blank sheet of paper. We design our own in-house production machine. So that means I have to choose everything, all the components, how they’re wired up. Like I say, ordering stuff data comes in, when will it get here? And I do a lot of organization, like from an outside contractor to our maintenance people. Hey, this stuff is supposed to arrive here.

This is when we should be working on it. Are you able to show up, you know, how long days can you spend on this? And then while that’s going on, you’re answering tons of questions. No, wire it up this way. Yes. That’s what I meant when I put this on the prints. Okay. I’ll do it differently next time. And then you actually get into the programming.

You sit down and you program your PLCs, your HMIs, and your drives. Somebody asked me one time, they said, what do you do for a living? I said I’m a conductor of a symphony of details and I have to know if we do this, it’s going to affect that. And somebody will say well can I use this component? Maybe let’s see how much current it draws, is the wire the right size and so forth.

08:46 Chris: 

So that we just came up with a definite t-shirt for controls engineers, a conductor of a symphony of details. So we were going to make that t-shirt, we’ve got to get that made for you. You should have copyrighted it’s too late. But you know, one thing that stood out is if I’m the listener and I’m thinking about a controls engineer, I may be thinking that I’m doing nothing but programming all day, and that is not what you said you do. I mean, that is a component so you need to know how to program and do work with HMIs and PLCs and all that equipment, but the communication piece, I guess, really is what you emphasize the most and all the different areas that you have to coordinate with to ultimately make the controls work. 

09:25 Chester: 

Yeah, you’re definitely part of the team. You’re not the lone ranger. And if you’re going to be a good controls engineer, you take into account. In my opinion, you take into account other people’s needs. If it’s six, one way, half a dozen, another for you, and it means the world to someone else. For me, it’s only natural you do it that means the world for someone else.

09:46 Chris: 

What about the, okay, let’s keep going now. You know, so far is the new engineer they’re right out of college for instance, they walked into their first manufacturing, you know, experience what’s the learning curve what’s in front of them that they need to know to be an effective controls engineer like yourself?

10:05 Chester: 

Oh for me in particular from my experience I went to work for a carpet manufacturer in Glasgow, Virginia, Burlington Industries. And it was a 24/7 operation. There are maintenance people definitely took care of the machinery and when they couldn’t, I got the phone call. No matter what time of day or night that phone call was. I learned very quickly if I wanted to sleep all night, I got to make maintenance people’s lives as easy as possible and give them the information they need to keep the machinery running. 

Learning curves the first of all, it was the vocabulary it’s they told me we’re having a problem with this inverter. I’m going okay. They taught me in school that an inverter was piece of electronic hardware, like a TTL device that changed the signal from one to zero. Okay. Well, no, no, no, no, No. The inverter is that thing right there in the box that runs the motor, right. The drive and the drive that we call them drives VFDs and okay. And then they would tell me, you know, we’re going to have, you know, open up this pecker head on this motor and I’m going….. what, and that really is a legit term. And so the vocabulary is you have to get used to what they call things. 

11:17 Chris: 

The first time somebody told me it was a pecker head. I totally thought they were messing with me, man. I was like you’re just joking with me. They’re like, no, it’s really called pecker head. I’m like, okay that’s just too funny who came up with that? You know? 

11:33 Chester: 

Yeah. It’s a real term. Also If you’re smart as a new graduate you will listen to the old gray haired people. And if they like you they’ll teach you a lot of stuff. The stuff you really need to know to do your job well, and really listen to them when they say we used to do it this way and it worked or it didn’t. You have to learn how to get along with all kinds of personalities and so forth. So there’s a lot of interpersonal skills. So it’s not like someone who is just this deep into details and whatever. I mean, you got to have some personality and some personality skills. 

12:17 Chris: 

Now you mentioned, you know, listening to the gray hairs and getting that advice. So are you, I hear you.

I hear you. I’m getting there. I think mine’s more to do with three kids and all that stuff going on is turning it gray manners and it’s turning a gray fast, but you know, how about the mentors? You guys, you talked about, you know, getting with people and connecting with them. So is that something, if I’m a new controls engineer, is that going to accelerate my path?

12:47 Chester: 

Priceless. Yes. Mentors are priceless. Now be careful who you use as a mentor. 

12:57 Chris: 

Why do you say that? Because a list or maybe like oh, what do you mean I’m new to this? How do I pick right? 

13:03 Chester: 

Pick a good person who knows what they’re talking about. And isn’t concerned with the politics, so to speak because these people will teach you what you need to know, and they also, you know, they could and can and affect your attitude about your job. And just be careful, but when you get a good mentor, like the good Lord’s blessed me with several good mentors like at Burlington now, I’m afraid to start mentioning people because I’ll leave somebody out and they’ll get mad.

Let Freddy Porter. I consider him as one of the most important mentors I’ve had. He took me under his wing. He told me what it really takes to keep a 24/7 operation working and why we do this way and that way. And he kind of said, Chester you might want to shut your mouth. It’s stuff like that. And I learned, and I’m very grateful to Fred and he’s retired now and living the good life out in West Virginia.

14:08 Chris: 

And it’s funny, you mentioned Burlington. You know, I think when we were talking getting ready for this episode, my dad worked at Burlington and Clarksville for a long time. And I remember those, he did much the same, some of the work that you did and those phone calls in the middle of the night. And he was always trying to engineer out you know, and make it as simple as possible for the operators so that he wouldn’t get those phone calls. and I remember the mentors that played in his life. And it sounds like you had the same type of people helping you along the way. 

14:39 Chester: 

Yes. And I will give credit where it’s due. The maintenance people at Burlington industry. They did the best they could to keep from calling us in the middle of the night. And I was so preached over that. They wouldn’t just call us for any old thing. I mean, if that phone rang, you knew they had gone through several other people to get to you and it was really serious. So if they’re listening now, thank you guys. Thank you. 

15:04 Chris: 

Now, how about the engineer out there and they want to do more design work, you know, versus the troubleshooting piece component of it from a controls engineer standpoint. So is the controls engineer, the right path for that individual, if they want to take that design route? 

15:20 Chester: 

Designing let’s make sure we understand what we mean when we say design. Are you talking about designing like an e-stop relay. Are you going to work for Rockwell? Are you going to work for Siemens to design their next VFD drive and so forth? Is that what we’re talking about or are we talking about we need to make the controls for this machine? Do we pick Rockwell’s e-stop relay or Siemens e-stop relay? Which one are we talking about? 

15:49 Chris: 

I would say let’s go the second route because that’s really what’s going to be impacting. If you go to design route with the manufacturer, that’s a different path, right? So let’s, let’s talk about the path and inside the plants themselves to the people that are making the product. 

16:03 Chester: 

All right. So like in my case I have to admit I thought my days at Burlington, where I was getting those phone calls and having to keep the machinery running were priceless. It taught me real quick about what it takes to make a good design. And I joke and say a good design engineer is someone who has spent time trying to keep junk running. When you have to do that, you really learn quickly about why this cable doesn’t work, why we should do this instead of that and why the keep it simple, stupid way of doing things is so great.

Now let it get complicated when it needs to be. Don’t get me wrong, but when it could be done simply. So I would say for someone who wants to be a design engineer like that it wouldn’t hurt to spend some time in the troubleshooting role and then move on up into a modernization role where after you’ve kept this junk running you now figure out, Hey, it would be nice if we could put this on it and that on it would make such easier.

And when you’ve done that, really had to rebuild the race car while you’re running the race. And you can’t have it down for so long. You must get it back up and running. Once you’ve spent some time doing that and then move on into the design work, will you start with a blank sheet of paper. And like, I remember when I got called out of bed because I chose to do it this way. Maybe I shouldn’t do it that way. And you start relying on your experience at that point. And some people may not understand why you want to do things that way, because they never got the call 2:00 AM and so forth. 

17:42 Chris: 

That’s right. There’s so much that comes with that experience. And I am curious before we get to the end here, the types of equipment, you know, you already mentioned PLC. HMIs, drives. What other types, you know, speak to the, again, the person who may be new to the industry with other types of equipment are out there that you find yourself as a control engineer interacting with. 

18:05 Chester: Okay. Like I say, PLCs, drives, HMIs and the networking that goes along with that, you’ll run into breakers and auxiliary contacts off of breakers that single PLC that, you know, haven’t tripped or I’m not. Safety. Oh, whole topic all to itself. You know, you’ll get into learning about the categories based on this standard or that standard and how you have to wire things up to meet those risk assessments. However that’s done in your particular company. Things like motor starters. You can get into that. DC power supplies. We like to use 24 volts DC as our control voltages. You’ll get into stuff like arc flash. 

18:46 Chris: 

Oh, really? I didn’t think you controls engineers would get into thinfs like that. 

18:51 Chester: 

We open cabinets sometimes with four 80. Yeah. You know, running drives and we have to know what personal protective equipment, PPEs, we should be wearing anddeal with that. That gets into what you’re designing. Do you want to try to design a cabinet so you don’t have to open the door that you may do your testing or viewing or whatever from the outside? So you don’t have to deal with that. That comes into play. So it’s a multitude of things. I mean, what kind of fuse holder do you want to use? Is this one easier for the maintenance guy to deal with than that one? Terminals, I mean, cabinet space is always at a premium. The cabinets never big enough. I don’t care if it’s as big as a house it’s never big enough it seems. 

So you start talking about, you know, double and triple layer terminals are they joined and all that to try to take up less space. And speaking of the cabinet space. I mean, like we’re talking about how things are changing with networking and so forth. I’m seeing a lot of these components moving out of the electrical cabinet and being mounted on the machine itself. And the only thing going to them is a cable for power and another cable for ethernet.

20:11 Chris: 

As you were going through that list, you know, I’m racking my brain. I’m like, okay, I may have just freaked out a controls engineer who was thinking about it because how are they going to keep up with all these products and all these different solutions? How do you learn about all this stuff? Is it through distributors, vendors? GTG go to Google? I mean, where’s it at? 

20:33 Chester: 

All of the above. Use any and all resources. Now I rely heavily on my vendors I don’t mind them sending me emails. I mean, in that saying, Hey, we just released the newest whizzbang thing and I’ll look at the email and I’ll glance over it. And if I got a need Hey, that could really work here, I’ll contact them and say, send me any more information. If not, I’ll file it in the back of my head for a future and get the delete key. I also try to subscribe to some magazines whether the print or digital I control engineering. That’s a good way of getting an idea of what the the future holds.

And like I say, Google, like if you needed it and know how to do something, or how do you do this? Hit enter and it will spit back an answer and you dig through all the frivolous stuff and say, Hey, and then follow that rabbit hole.

21:31 Chris: 

And then find that YouTube video. 

21:33 Chester: 

Yes. Oh yes. So yes, YouTube videos do help. And a couple of your guests have got some good channels 

21:40 Chris: 

For sure. I mean, just thinking right off the bat, Tim Wilborne, unbelievable channel he has, and we’ve tried to do more on the YouTube front ourselves, just to answer those typical questions to how to type questions that, you know, controls engine near may run into. So the, how about, you know, Chester, we’re getting close to the end here. Speak to the engineer out there the person in their career. And they want to start learning how to be a controls engineer, where should they start investing their time and studying to get those skills? 

22:10 Chester: 

There is lots of ways of getting from there to here. Maybe in another episode we can talk about education but try to get educated. And I think it all boils down to what you want to do. Do you want to be the maintenance guy or so forth, whose troubleshoots, do you want to be the design engineer and so forth?

I’d say you need an education. That’s whole other subject there, but whether you need a degree or not, but you definitely need to get your foot in the door somewhere. And once you do a show initiative. Show that you want to learn, right. Do things on your own. And you might luck out with a company that will invest in you, send you to Rockwell, Siemens, Schneider schools, or whatever particular flavor they have. Right. And like I say, I’d have to go into education and all those all sorts of things.

23:04 Chris: 

That was good advice there. And you even mentioned a few resources, like the controls engineering magazine. That’s been a great publication for years. I still get it. I still see it come across, plant engineering, you know, there’s several of them out there to, and then LinkedIn groups and following people on YouTube, you know, that are in your space. That’s a great way to learn. 

23:24 Chester: 

I would find someone who already does the work and pick their brain, ask them, how did you get here? What did you have to do? And if you’re already employed somewhere, you know, be the guy who volunteers. Learn everything. Don’t shy away from doing stuff, and you’ll be surprised the opportunities that are opened up for you.

23:49 Chris: 

And they will. Chester this has been great teaching people about what a controls engineer is. It’s called EECO Asks Why, you know, as a listener that we always wrap up with the why. Why are control engineers critical to that continued success in manufacturing in the future? 

24:03 Chester: 

Well, if you’re in manufacturing you’re making something, I don’t care what it is. Candy bars to diesel engines. You’re making something and something is being made by a machine and that machine needs to run correctly. And produce a quality product when it’s needed at a rate that it’s needed as a controls engineer from design to modernizing, to troubleshooting all these people they affect the bottom line. It’s a very nice field to be in, and it’s a very important field to be in for the health of your company. 

24:40 Chris: 

For sure. Well Chester this has been wonderful. You know, I know we have a lot of people that are excited now to go learn more about controls engineering. Thank you for opening your doors and telling us about what you do and your typical day. And this has been a lot of fun unpacking control engineers. So thank you, sir. 

24:57 Chester: 

Thank you for having me.