View Full Version : To be an engineer...
05-19-2006, 12:49 PM
Hey all. Wow, it has been quite some time since I started a thread. But anyway, I have two questions for all you engineers out there: What is the greatest highlight of your engineering career so far? And, what was the worst part of your engineering career so far? And try to keep this to work related aspects, not necessarily strictly FIRST related.
I'm posing this questions to all sorts of engineers (software, mechanical, electrical, etc...) of all ages (1 month, 1 year, 10 years, 50 years of experience, etc...). I'm just curious, really.
I have been an official engineer for a year now. I am a Mechanical Engineer working in the aerospace industry (Northrop Grumman). As a small part of a very big project, sometimes it's hard for me to see the big picture; the way what I do makes a difference. I know that all of us engineers here have an important part on getting a plane built. And, as my mentor at work tells me, there are parts of your career that you go through that makes you realize that all the stuff you've been through is absolutely worth it. I know that the more experience you get, the cooler the stuff gets. For me, the highlight of my year-long engineering career (I'm not really counting internships) is being able to go to the manufacturing site and actually see what I'm designing/fixing. And the down point? I hate cabling (cable routing, drawings, etc...) with a passion. I spent months doing that and it was the bane of my existence.
But, I have very limited experience so I'm expecting some good stories from some of you (*cough*AndyBaker*cough*).
So, lets hear it. What experience have you had with a project that made you say, "this is why I'm an engineer"? And, the experience that made you say, "I spent (enter years here) years in college for this?!"
05-19-2006, 01:00 PM
What is the greatest highlight of your engineering career so far? And, what was the worst part of your engineering career so far? And try to keep this to work related aspects, not necessarily strictly FIRST related.
The highlight in my short experience so far was actually the very last thing that I did as an undergrad. I worked for Gillette in London, England for 2 months. My project partner and I redesigned a pick and place mechanism for a high speed line running in excess of 160 parts per minute. We ended up creating a single-cam driven 10-bar linkage mechanism. When we were done, we had this awesome cad model of it, a stack of prints being sent to the machine shop, 30 pages of mathcad equations backing up that it won't destroy itself while running, and a 200 page report that we submitted to the head of European Engineering. We put our hearts and souls into that design for 7 weeks straight and it was awesome when we finished it and received a standing ovation from a room full of Gillette execs.
The worst was this one time I designed/built a large EOAT (end-of-arm-tool) to go on a piece of automation here at Nypro. I spent several weeks designing, cadding, machining, assembly, debug, etc on it. Gave it to the guys on the floor to use at the end of the day and went home. I came in the next morning to find it sitting on my desk broken because it got squished in a molding machine.
05-19-2006, 04:32 PM
: What is the greatest highlight of your engineering career so far? And, what was the worst part of your engineering career so far?
I work as a Controls Engineer. I do electrical design and software for automation machinery. I also program robots and vision systems. The company I work for designs automated machinery for mostly automotive companies, medical, food, electronics and packaging.
I really enjoy my job because I get to see my work from start to finish. The mechanical engineer designs the machine and I design the electrical and do the software programming for the machine. So from a blank piece of paper to a running machine, is a process that takes about 10-16 weeks normally. Every machine I design, I have to go to the customer’s plant and do what's called a "run off". So I get so see my work complete and feel very good about it. I've been involved in machinery projects from diapers to alternator modules that go on a 2007 corvette. The biggest project I did was in England for a company called Weebix. It was a project in the millions; they made cereal bars for the people in England. It was an awesome project when done.
Thinks I like:
1. I get to travel to places here in the USA and overseas. Though, it’s starting to wear on me with a family now.
2. I get to design and spec the parts and components I need to make the application work.
3. I get to play with a lot of cool off the shelf “toys” such as robots, vision cameras, radio frequency tags, (RFID), bar codes, printers, ascii stuff…etc, etc…
4. I get to see my design running in a production facility.
Out of everything I do, I am like a huge sponge. I have learned so much, I love to give back anyway I can. I’ve written lots of whitepapers and uploaded several examples of automation things I’ve learned to new upcoming engineers in my field. Basically, it’s the “good” feeling I get after working on each project. Plus always getting to see something made at the factory one to two years before the rest of the world does…like the steering wheel and air bag module of 2008 Toyotas….or I got to see both the Ford Mustang and Corvette models, pictures and various parts that the Tier 1 suppliers make, like the place Andy Baker works for. Learning things, like all Toyotas models have the SAME fuel pump installed them, but then finding out that FORD has over 600 different fuel pumps...geez...no wonder....
There a few things that really bothers me. If I screw up my software, I break things and feel pretty bad about it. Like for example there is a device we call an index table that is the center piece of some automation machines. If the software isn’t quite right, and devices aren’t clear “interlocked” from the index table, and the index table moves while other things are moving….well….things tend to break. I’ve done that “once” in my 13 years. It cost a lot of money to fix it. I’ve also crashed many EOATS on robots. EOATS aren’t cheap either. Although, I’ve never gobbled up a robot in a mold machine yet. I’ve programmed some pretty big robots like Yushins and Wittmans.
The next thing I hate is learning that a piece of automation will replace “x” number of people. But at the same time, automation makes it easier on people so they aren’t so strained etc…if we don’t automate a process; it probably ends up in Mexico or China. I think some companies realize that a robot can build it for the same price as Mexico or China labor rates, so at least the company remains in the USA, but all their workforce is laid off either way you look at that…take a look at this pro-robot company website:
The final thing is safety….because we build automation, each machine has it’s own custom safety circuit. 10 years ago, I wasn’t as safety conscience as I am now. Also 10 years ago the USA standard on machinery was Category 1 safety with single circuit e-stop. Most people “other control engineers I learned from” designed safety circuit with relays that did not have a safety rating on them, like using a motor starter for a safety relay. There was this one time that I followed suit and I used a mini-motor starter as an MCR (master control relay) that controls an e-stop condition on a machine that runs a conveyor. There was an e-stop pull cable down the length of this conveyor and an operator lady, got her hair caught in the conveyor belt, she pulled the e-stop cable, but the conveyor didn’t stop. It pulled out some of her hair. After checking, the relay I had used, the contacts welded shut, and the e-stop did not work. But the lesson here is that you learn from your mistakes. I now design Category 4 safety using safety relays with dual monitoring and dual contacts etc, etc. Basically I personally adopted the European Standard for safety and I have continued to improve safety on each and every machine I am involved with. I get in arguments with the mechanical engineer all the time about adding this and that guarding on the machine, but it’s because I don’t ever want to be responsible for hurting anyone ever again…..
05-19-2006, 08:18 PM
I only spent 6 years working as an engineer, I gave up in 1989 after being promoted to a low level management job (working as a civil servant for the Army Information Systems Command). But I did get to have some fun getting a few big (10 meter) satellite ground systems up and running, after being responsible for the installation engineering and initial power up and troubleshooting.
Since then I've had fun playing around....driving my 60 year old bulldozer is fun, and my avatar picture was also rewarding, that's me driving the car I built, somewhere in the midwest, on the Hot Rod Power Tour a couple years ago....the picture is a scan from Hot Rod magazine.
Also helping our three sons learn about how life and other things work is rewarding....my "main job" is house husband.
The unpleasant part of my engineering career was the red tape that one has to put up with when working for the government.
05-25-2006, 06:08 PM
Cmon Engineers tell us your stories. I think this is one of the coolest threads i have ever seen on CD. It cool to hear stories of what i may one day be doing. I know i want to do something in engineering, but what do engineers do?
05-25-2006, 09:34 PM
(wow... this is long... sorry about that)
As an engineer, I've had some highs and lows. The odd thing about it, sometimes the things that you dread actually come out being good experiences. Also, the opposite is true.
I'll first describe what I do at Delphi as a mechanical engineer. Our division of Delphi (the Electronics and Safety division... formerly Delco Electronics) makes automotive electronics. I work in a department that designs and produces production machinery for the assembly lines. Our customers are the production personnel. They come to us with unique assembly and test projects and we create machinery that puts our products together and/or helps the operator put the product together. While our department is in Kokomo, we make equipment for 5-6 other Delphi manufacturing sites.
The neat thing about my job is that I get to work on many different projects and products. I may have 4-5 projects going on at once, for different facilities, or I may be focusing on 1.
Now, to describe a high point and low point of my engineering career, I'll focus on one certain customer in our Milwaukee operations. Let's call this customer "Joe".
About 10 years ago, I was assigned to a project that required a simple mechanism to pick a part from one line and place it on another. This product was an engine control module, about the size of a textbook. I chose to put on a cam-operated indexer (from Stelron) that drove this pick and place mechanism through it's cycle. On the end of the indexer was a simple but strong gripper (from RoboHand). All the machine did was this:
sense a product on lane 1
pick up the product on lane 1
cycle over to lane 2
place the product on lane 2
go back to get ready for another product on lane 1
When the machine was completed, I had to go to Milwaukee to install it and make sure it got integrated into the production line. It was really no big deal. Joe liked the machine and thanked me for a good job. He ribbed me for making a mechanism that appeared to be too large for the job, but he was happy that it worked well.
Fast forward 9 years...
I am working on a robotic pick and place cell, where products come out of an oven and get placed into one of 30 tests nests. The robot sees the parts coming out of an oven, grabs them, places them into these nests. The nests have their own latching/unlatching mechanisms and so does the end of arm tooling on the robot. On the robot head, there are these items: vacuum pickup for label placement, 2 pneumatic grippers for part grasping, 2 pneumatic actuators for nest latching, a tool changer, and a bar code scanner (and a partridge in a pair tree!). On the nests, there are locating pins, shock absorbers, and a Delrin probe nest. The probe nests alone are worth $1,000 (machine time, assembly time, etc.).
We went through the same procedure we always do... design the machine, review it with the customer, make the machine, get it working, ship it to the customer. This machine went to the same customer, Joe, as the cam machine above.
Joe sees this machine, and the first thing he says was "this looks like $#%&". He thought that the tooling holding the nests were wimpy. My boss and I decided to use some extruded aluminum that we deemed robust enough. Our customer wanted machined plates, doweled together. This extruded stuff was not good enough, and he demanded the doweled design. Even though I wanted to go through the hoops to prove that this design was indeed good enough, we were forced to REDO the 30 nest supports, costing many thousands of dollars. Oh... I didn't mention that we were making 8 of this robotic test machine. 2 were already done, and 4 were in process... and this dude was insisting that we can our current design and re-do the nest supports (not a trivial thing at all). I did not think of Joe fondly, as you can imagine.
We did it... redesigned the nest supports and re-installed all of this stuff. The customer was happy, and we essentially were proven wrong. This was a low point, definitely. It is not easy to have your design criticized and you really don't have a chance to prove it works.
So, about a month after we installed the new nest supports and pleased this customer, he sends me an email. This email told the story of a 10 year old assembly line for our "old" engine control module. Delphi didn't need the line anymore, since the part was obsolete and enough spare parts were made. Joe's department finally removed the line from their operations floor. He sent a picture out to all of his co-workers within Delphi, and drew a picture around a simple Stelron cambox.
The note next to the picture said "14,000,000 cycles and not 1 problem ever. We made fun of this "too big" cam box 10 years ago, but it was the most reliable machine we have had since I started here 20 years ago."
That made me proud. I was happy to be a part of something dependable that made someone else's productivity high. Joe is a good guy... he demands excellence and sometimes ticks people off to get it, and I am happy to do my job to make his better.
ps... 1/2 of the day today was spent re-thinking the Delrin nest design that we have made 300 of over the past year... ugh.
06-07-2006, 09:54 PM
I orginally posted this over at technokats forum (http://www.technokats.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=113), but I thought it might be a nice addition to this thread, since I took the time to type it all up....
In my day job, I am a Controls Engineer. I swear, it's the best electrical, robot, software, vision, job on the planet. I really enjoy my job. I work for a machine builder during the day. QSI Automation, Inc. http://www.qsiautomation.com QSI builds assembly machines for just about any market. Automotive, medical, packaging, you name it. My job is to "animate" what a Mechanical Engineer designs. I run several projects at once, generally what we call "responsibility". At QSI I normally have about 1.5 million in responsibility. So if one project cost 1 million, then a second one is 1/2 million, I would only have two projects. If fifteen jobs cost $100,000, then I would run fifteen projects at once. Of course this is just baseline. It never works out this way. QSI has two Control Engineers, and four Mechnical Engineers. We are a turn key business. We do everything on our machines, we don't farm out anything. Not even mold design. We have mold makers and mold engineers. Feed bowl people and a complete machine shop. Something like eight CNC mills, one machine center etc, etc..
I started out when I was 17 years old in high school, much like you guys are. I got a temporary job with John Daniel Electric. They are an industrial commercial electrical contractor. Union brothers. I worked with them for almost two years as an apprentice and learned about 120, 220, 480 VAC 3-phase, the NEC (national electrical code), NFPA 79, as well as my first exposure to PLCs (programmable logic controllers). When I was first exposed to PLCs through John Daniels, I knew I wanted to learn more about them. I actually wired up some control panels at the time for a company called Shuttleworth, Inc. They make custom conveyors. Shuttleworth hired John Daniel to wire control panels which contained PLC's in them. Shuttleworth saw my wiring job, (neat and tidy) and asked John Daniel if they could offer me a job full time to wire and build control panels. John Daniels agreed, and I accepted a position with Shuttleworth at age 19. Shuttleworth had two Controls Engineers on staff and I knew that this is what I wanted to do. Shuttleworth had a tuition reimbursement benefit which paid for my college. I worked during the day, and went to school at night at IPFW and ITT Tech. Once I finished my schooling with my Bachelors degree, which I got in 3 years....I about killed myself doing it, but glad I did...I was offered a Controls Engineering position at Shuttleworth. Later on I moved onward to QSI still as a Controls Engineer.
So what do I do? A customer comes to QSI with a part. Lets say it's a key with rubber molding around the part you always grab to start your car. Our customer says, we need to bulk feed the steel band material into a die and punch out a key, then orient them into a feed system where we need to pick them up eight at a time and load them into a mold machine where they will get over molded with the rubber grip. Remove the molded part, break the runner, then vision inspect the molding, metal key way for any defects. We want this machine to run fully automatic with no operators. It must cycle every six seconds. This is what we call a "turn key" system. Push start, and out comes keys ready to be made into keys with a special grinder for your FORDs, CHEVY etc...
So we propose a concept of the machine and a fixed price to the customer and promise a 16 week delivery. The customer accepts our automation concept and the mechanical engineer begins designing the machine, tooling, etc. Once all the actuators are sized that the mechanical engineer needs, then I begin to look at what I need for an electrical panel to make this machine run. I design electrical prints to what is called a JIC standard. Normally in AutoCad 2D. I use AutoCad Electrical 2004 right now that does my electrical drawings. (You'll have to create an account to download) but here is a complete industrial automation system drawing prints I designed you can look at in AutoCad 2D.
During the electrical design phase, I spec in, or I abide by my end users company spec. They might spec they want to use a certain name brand PLC, or photo-eye sensor. Or maybe even a certain type of a valve. As a Control Engineer at QSI, I am also responsible for designing the air system to control all the air valves. After the electrical design is done, AutoCad Electrical has a BOM (Bills of Material) system built into it, if I draw it, there is a part number assigned to it. I run a BOM report and give that to a purchasing lady. She orders all the parts I need to build my electrical panel for my machines.
Here are some pictures of electrical panels:
Now that parts are on order, I begin to write software for the machine. Most machines are written in PLC ladder logic. It looks nothing like C++. It's graphical based. I had no C++ experience when I started mentoring robotics, but just like anything else I've programmed, if you can think logically, you can program in ANY language, you just have to overcome the syntax or how to access memory and registers in the processing environment you are placed in. I brag that I probably know about 30-40 different programming languages. Each robot I have programmed has it's own language. I called it mnemonics. Fanuc robots, ABB robots, Motoman robot, IAI robots, different single axis servos have languages, vision systems have a language etc....PLCs however are mostly the same. Ladder logic is ladder logic across the board no matter if you are programming an Allen Bradley, Siemens, GE, Omron, Automation Direct, Koyo PLC.. etc...I've programmed them all.
Here is a sample Allen Bradley PLC program in PDF format you can look at:
Now that all programs are started, PLC, HMI (human machine interface), robot programs, vision programs. I wait until our assembly techs build the machine, build the panel, and turn power on for the first time. By the way, an HMI is a touch screen that you can make really kewl things on like push buttons, alarms, trending graphs, etc..it's sort of like this National Instruments stuff, but doesn't normally require a PC.
After assembly has powered on the machine for the first time, I bring my laptop down and camp out by the machine for normally a week to two weeks depending on the size of the machine. I debug my program and make the machine run. During this phase, we acknowledge any mechanical issues and normally redesign things that don't work. Like fixtures, nests that hold parts etc....grippers that don't quite grab the part correctly.
After the mechanical, electrical, and software bugs are all out and about 25 Mountain Dews later and some sleepless nights during debug, we call the customer and say we are ready to show them the machine. The customer comes in and normally finds something he/she doesn't like. They beat us all up, make us change this and that. Sometimes we make them pay for the changes, sometimes we eat it. Depending on who's fault it is. This is the part of my job I hate. Political crap. Also cycle time on a machine is very important. Up front in the quote we state our machine can make eight keys every six seconds. The customer comes with a stop watch. If he times the machine at 6.5 seconds, we are in trouble...more software changes more mechanical changes to figure out where our bottle neck is. Then finally we are running at 5.9 seconds and customer signs off on the machine.
Now the assembly department takes apart the whole machine, crates it and ships it to the customer facility. I arrive normally a week later, onsite. And go through the whole customer run off again. Normally for a longer time. Onsite generally in the machine contract we run the machine off for 8 hours with no less than 95% scrap rate and 98% machine uptime. After we pass this test the customer signs off with a final, and I come back to the shop and start all over again.
The next project might be making diapers, or making a air bag module for a Toyota...who knows, that's what makes it exciting.
Mind you I could have 1 to 15 machine in process all doing different things. I work with a Project Engineer who keeps all the facts straight on each of my projects and communicates with the customer. I seldom have to talk to the customer except during the first kick off meeting, in our plant run off, then finally at their place.
I travel every where. Travel is not bad. Every 6-8 weeks, I am on the road for a week at a time normally. I've been to Europe, Japan, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, etc.
What's kewl about a Controls Engineer is I get to play with lots of robots and vision systems. I consider myself an expert PLC programmer, robotics engineer and vision engineer. My favorite thing to do is integrate a vision camera on a robot so the camera sees for the robot and the robot pick up the part. I also like multi tool robots. Projects I've done that require the EOAT (end of arm tooling) to be changed on the fly, like change it from a drill to a saw. Everything, and everyday is different.
Here is a vision guided robot article I wrote:
So in my past time I started a website called MrPLC. http://www.mrplc.com. I started this website in 1999. It's a forum based automation website for people like me. It's just like Chief Delphi. I have over 18,000 members that participate and people have uploaded over 500 documents and manuals for just about anything automation related. Some of the documents and things I have developed:
Before AutoCad Electrical, I made my own auto cad menu to insert electrical symbols I released it for free:
I made one for the mechanical engineers too "bolts" symbols
Now the mechanical guys draw our machines in total 3D. Using Solid Edge. So they don't need the bolts menu anymore.
I also made several spreadsheets. One that can calculate panel amperages. I made it to work from low voltage to high voltage. Start with the 24 VDC control voltage, then 120 VAC, then finally the 480 VAC 3-phase. It calculates fusing etc for industrial cabinets.
I also took air spreadsheet from a buddy of mind and made some more modification. You can use this to size air valves and cycle times.
I've also written several articles about automation if your more interested
Here are some kewl automation videos you can watch:
Watch QSI's company video, very neat stuff:
Hopefully that wasn't too boring and you saw something here that might inspire you to look into the automation field. I've only scratched the surface of the amount of fun I have.
Good luck to you all.
06-08-2006, 10:49 AM
Oooh - and excuse for long-winded and rambling reminisce-age!
I've had a few engineering "careers" over the last 30 years. They change from time to time, and with each new one comes new highs and lows.
[The early years]
After getting an AAS in electronics, I started out as an R&D technician with Dupont and worked my way up there until I was running mid-sized projects developing lab automation for Ag research. I highlighted that part of my life in another thread What would be your dream tech job? (http://www.chiefdelphi.com/forums/showpost.php?p=413601&postcount=3).
In that phase of my career, the high point had to be when I was working on a fast-track new venture team developing a portable medical device for making sterile tubing connections for peritoneal dialysis patients. If successful, this device would free these patients from having to manually make the connections to change dialysis bags - a big source of infection and which severely limited their freedom and quality of life.
The engineering of this device was a real challenge. The prototypes had to be as nearly fail-safe as possible, no bigger than a shoe box, economically manufacturable and pass clinical field trials with real patients. This project used materials and techniques which we take for granted today, but were pretty new at the time: embedded control (Intel's 8085 single-chip uP) and high-performance engineering plastics like Delrin and Torlon. I was responsible for the control system hardware design and fabrication.
We had to deal with a lot of issues like electrostatic discharge which caused the uP to lock up, getting good temperature control of the heated blade (which cut and welded the tube ends together) using just the temperature cooefficient of resistance as an indicator, making the instrument frame rigid enough to hold everything in critical alignment and keeping the weight manageable for semi-invalids.
After exhaustive in-house testing we got the first of these "Sterile Connection Devices" (product naming was never Dupont's strong suit) out into clinical trials and held our breath. The patients love it! It made it possible for them to get out of the house, take walks and do things with their families which they'd been afraid to do for fear of not having a place to make a sterile bag change.
Probably the high point of my engineering career came when we released the second-generation prototype SCD and some of the patients who had the first ones refused to bring them back - they loved them that much. We also got some interesting stories back from the clinicians, like the one about one patient who had a pet duck which always sat in his lap while he made the bag change.
The low point of my career was on the same project when the company decided not to go forward with the product because of fears over liability in the case a connection went awry. We were devastated, not just as engineers, but knowing how much we had improved the patients' quality of life, and that they would have to go back to the risky manual methods which chained them to home - and almost guaranteed they would suffer peritonitis eventually.
[many years pass]
When Dupont started downsizing R&D in the 90's I took a chance and a position as senior systems engineer at fledgling Pharmacopeia - a pharmaceutical research start-up in Princeton, NJ. The company was less than a year old, and I was in the first wave of staffing up to complete their "proof of principle" which we hoped would attract big pharma to collaborate and convince venture capitalists to increase their funding.
My job description was pretty general - the company philosophy was "if it isn't chemistry or biology, it must be engineering". The corollary to that was, if it is chemistry or biology, but you have to do it a lot, it must be engineering, too. So, I got to learn a little about a lot of subjects, from analytical chemistry to high-throughput biochemical screening, and figure out how to make them work better, faster and cheaper for us. Among many accomplishments I got a couple of patents for methods of rapidly drying sensitive chemical samples without oxidative or thermal degradation, and designed photochemical cleavage systems. Recall my degree is in electronics, so you can see how far I moved and how much I had to learn.
The high point of this part of my career was probably being told by the leader of one group that if he had an engineering problem that wasn't real critical he'd give it to the manager of the engineering group to assign, but if it absolutely had to be solved he'd come to me first. The low point began when they hired that engineering manager - giving me the line that my work was too important for me to be distracted by managing a group. I butted heads with that fellow for many years, but eventually he was let go and I replaced him.
[fast-forward to present]
These days I spend less than 10% of my time on hardware engineering, about a third of my time on management stuff and half my time on safety. One great thing about working in a small company is you get to wear a lot of hats. The big problem with working in a small company is you have to wear the hats, even if they keep you away from what you were hired for. Not that I don't feel safety is critical to the health and productivity of the employees and the company (I did work at Dupont, after all) - it's just that managing environmental, health and safety is crushingly boring and stressful for me.
Oh, and one of the high points of my recent career is seeing the narrowly-focused software engineer whom I mentor take on new roles and responsibilities. The other day he came to me complaining that an outside engineering company had over-tightened the conveyor belts on one of our instruments and he'd had to re-adjust 11 of them. The "old" software engineer wouldn't have checked the belts, let alone adjust them - he'd have "fixed" the problem in software and the bearings would have failed prematurely. Now he takes a broader view, tracked down the problem before it became a big one, determined the extent of it and fixed it himself. Like I said, you have to wear a lot of hats and Alex is developing a nice collection of his own.
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