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Engineering Robotics and Controls Career

  1. Mar 7, 2016 #1
    Hi all,

    I've finally narrowed down my career interests to robotics and controls. I have a BS in Mechanical Engineering Technology. I'm looking at a couple different grad programs at a local school:
    1. MSEE with a focus on robotics and controls.
    2. M. Eng. in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on controls.
    3. MS in Manufacturing and Mechanical Systems Integration with a focus on automated manufacturing.
    I think the first and second choices would give me a control theory background which could be applied to anything I suppose, but I know I would need some remedial coursework. The third one isn't focused on control theory but rather system simulations in manufacturing, automation controls, plc programming, robots and cnc in automated manufacturing, along with some design of experiments and a six sigma course/project.

    Am I correct in viewing the third one as more of an 'applied degree' within a manufacturing role that implements solutions with automated systems? Whereas the first two you could actually, for example, design the robots that are used in manufacturing? Anyone with experience in either area can chime in! What do you like/dislike about what you do on a day to day basis? I just want to make sure I'm making a fair analysis based on my interests. I don't mind diving into advanced math, which I anticipate the controls coursework to be, but I also like seeing the practical side of things, how systems are actually implemented and used.

    Also, what would you consider to be the main differences between a 'controls' curriculum in the ME department vs the EE department?
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 7, 2016 #2
    Solid control theory concept are the best foundation to later gain solid grounds an move to more applied stuff later on.
    Besides robotics still encloses interesting areas of control due to its non linear nature and that difficult requirement of "compliance".
  4. Mar 7, 2016 #3
    Thanks Manuel. Yea I was thinking if I get the foundation then I can work on anything applied to controls.
  5. Mar 7, 2016 #4
    Yes, this sound like an "operations" program, with more of a business focus than you would find in a straight up engineering program. These are great jobs if that is what you find interesting.
  6. Mar 10, 2016 #5
    This is all IMHO, so take it all at face value.
    At first glance, I will hazard the opinion that you are a little confused about the subject matter. University-level study of "controls" typically manifests itself in the form a Control Theory, or Dynamic Systems & Controls, or other keyword search strings along those lines. This is mostly applied mathematics. It is used to develop math models of systems and determine regimes of operation where these systems are stable/unstable. Mechanical, electrical, thermal, ...all types of dynamic systems. Airplanes, chemical plants, servo motors. The field of study answers questions like which set of control parameters can I use that will keep my drone flying & easy to control by humans with their limited reaction times? Same thing for self-driving cars. Or another example could be to develop the operating parameters of a high-speed textile machine that will lead the mechanical designer to develop a sufficiently-stiff crank arm member that will achieve the motion needed in the time required. I hope you're getting the idea. I'm sure there are many electrical examples also, but I'm just a gear-head. Good that you recognize that remedial studies are necessary to pursue that field. I imagine that there jobs available for this level of expertise, but the market isn't flooded with them. Else everyone would be going into this field. Will mastery of this subject matter help you with less-technical jobs? Undoubtedly.

    This, as opposed to the more general field of industrial control. Here you apply various types of controllers to industrial / manufacturing processes. The most common would be Programmable Logic Controllers, but many other types are out there, too. Servo motor controllers, process controllers, robot system controllers...generally think of you purchasing something from a catalog and applying it to a problem area. Then expand this into all the wiring, networking, connecting of various computers, mechanical power transmission components, industrial robots, different programming languages. This field is a target-rich environment for successful careers from the guy who sits behind the keyboard programming all day to the guy who works all night getting a machine to run successfully, and everything in between. Search for Automation Engineer or Controls Engineer or various flavors of Senior / Advanced Manufacturing Engineer to see job descriptions.
  7. Mar 10, 2016 #6
    Wow thank you for the response. I was wondering the same thing myself actually, because it seems like when I type in 'controls engineer' on Indeed or a similar search term, it's littered with industrial controls jobs, plc programming, and the like, but I don't ever really see much in hardcore control theory. It seems like there would be a lot of cool opportunities in that field doing any number of things.
  8. Mar 11, 2016 #7
    I'm an industrial controls engineer. Industrial control systems are a very broad field of study. You could be working on a robot one day, a large blower control system the next, or a wide area distribution SCADA system.

    I don't design robotics or flight controls (although I am a private pilot as well). Nevertheless, the concepts and the math are very similar. If you can get access to a decent technical library, look for the three volume Instrument Engineer's Handbook published by CRC Press. The original volumes were started from a pile of notes by Bela Liptak. I consider him to be the Godfather of this endeavor. These handbooks are 2000 pages for each volume. They're not cheap. But they offer a fantastic overview of the profession.

    I work primarily on wide area SCADA (the event telemetry and supervisory controls that are used to manage distribution grids for energy and water). It's not sexy, but it's interesting and it truly is analogous to a nerve system bundle in the backbone of any city in the world.

    Right now, there is a huge push toward securing processes and control systems networks from attack. It combine two very broad fields of computer security, and control systems. This is the intersection of two very broad and surprisingly deep fields of knowledge. There are many who claim to practice it, but few who do it well. I designed a SCADA system and I live with the results. If it does something unexpected, I'll hear about it, day or night.

    I started off with a degree in Electrical Engineering. I also have a very solid background as a technician. If you want to get your hands dirty, while working on the whole system, this is the profession for you. A degree in Mechanical Engineering would serve as well. Pay particular attention to the thermodynamics and fluids courses and don't skimp on either of them. A strong background in chemistry wouldn't hurt either.

    A master's degree isn't necessary, but it helps. You should be very familiar with differential equations, Laplace Transforms, Fourier Transforms, and the like. Do note that while I don't use that math every day, the concepts are used frequently enough that I'm not likely to forget them. I'm often just as concerned with durability of materials, compressible air flow, explosive atmosphere wiring standards, as I would be with the software in a PLC.

    Your days won't be in cubicles. They're often spent in a lab or on a work-site. High energy systems are commonplace. There are work-site hazards, both obvious and not so much. While I have good and bad days, I have to say that on balance, this is a really fun profession to be in.
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