What Is an Automation Engineer? (With Duties and Skills)
Updated July 25, 2023
Automation engineers search for ways to simplify activities for employees, consumers and companies by automating specific systems and manufacturing processes, like store checkouts or assembly lines. In this role, you can help improve the daily functions of individuals and help a company improve its efficiency. Understanding this occupation might help you decide if it's the right career path for you.
In this article, we discuss what an automation engineer is, their job duties, tools and essential skills and qualities, review their average salary, job outlook, education requirements and work environment and list some related careers.
What is an automation engineer?
An automation engineer is an engineering expert who improves various manufacturing processes and computer systems by automating specific parts to work independently and automatically. They revise existing technology so it requires less human interaction, and they monitor the performance of the implemented changes.
Sometimes, an automation engineer designs entirely new technology to automate a system. Automation engineers can be traditional engineers with physical machines or software engineers with programming languages and computers.
What does an automation engineer do?
The specific duties of an automation engineer vary depending on whether they're working with machines or computer programs and systems, but the general responsibilities remain the same. These engineers work with engineering teams to develop automation systems. They work alongside other departments to create automation plans that align with business goals. The engineers then lead the implementation of changes or new technology and oversee the quality assurance (QA) process.
Here are some more automation engineer job duties:
Communicating with clients about project requirements
Identifying opportunities to increase efficiency with automation
Researching and designing automation technology
Creating a connection between information inputs, controllers and outputs
Developing tests and simulations to ensure the systems work as intended
Establishing monitoring and QA processes
Investigating defects or errors in the technology
Automation engineer tools
The tools of an automation engineer typically are in one of two categories: software engineering or traditional engineering.
Here are some of the primary tools and systems used by software engineers, traditional engineers or both to create automation technology:
Engineers write and store code on computers, which execute the finished programs. Engineers use desktop or laptop computers to manage and control automation for online services and physical machinery. Some computer components you may use in automation include:
Motor controls and drives
Human-machine interface (HMI)
Programming languages like Java, C# and Python allow engineers to compose programs that help automate software. Some traditional engineers may also implement programs to monitor their physical systems.
Automated testing software
Both engineers use testing software applications to monitor their systems for bugs, errors and defects that can impede workflow. These programs make testing efficient and quick to enable quicker releases.
Controls are like intermediaries between inputs and outputs, and it's how an automated system can assess and respond to specific conditions or situations. They take information from the input and, based on requirements programmed by the engineer, give instructions to the output.
Sensors can be physical or software-based, but they work to measure information, called input, that the system sends to the control. The type of sensor depends on what information the control requires to make a decision, like motion, temperature or data.
Actuators, or outputs, perform an action when the control instructs them. These can include physical devices like pistons, rotors and software systems that output information, like where a mouse pointer moves on a screen.
Automation engineer skills and qualities
Automation engineers possess many hard and soft skills that help them create reliable automation systems. The basic soft and technical skills required to be an automation engineer include:
When starting a new automation project, automation engineers may manage an engineering team. Leadership skills are necessary to ensure the new or changed systems work efficiently for the client. The automation engineer can lead their team through client requirements, design plans and implementation. Managing a team well leads to more efficient client outcomes, making this a valuable skill.
Automation engineers seek new opportunities to upgrade their automated processes and increase productivity. Understanding recent developments in the field may help you refine your employer's competitive advantage. They can accomplish this by staying active in engineering networks, noting transforming technologies and seeking new information to improve plans.
The ability to program is essential for automation engineers to create their systems. This can refer to computer programming, like coding software solutions or programming physical machines, like robotic assembly lines.
Either way, programming systems take inputs and create outputs based on specific requirements is a necessary function of automation, as these machines and programs receive minimal manual instruction from humans.
Mechanical knowledge is typically more relevant for traditional automation engineers who work with physical machinery than for software engineers. Understanding a client's mechanical systems helps the automation engineer automate the system efficiently. Engineers may also help build, maintain and troubleshoot machines.
Problem-solving assists with the implementation of new systems and maintenance of existing automation to correct any issues that arise. Combining this skill with creative thinking can help you find effective solutions while troubleshooting.
Automation engineers communicate verbally and visually with clients, teammates and partners. Effective communication can help them simplify processes and clarify expectations. Clear communication between the engineer and the client ensures the engineer understands all the project requirements. Additionally, engineers communicate directions and instructions to their teammates and deliver information to and from clients.
Writing direct, concise documents can help automation engineers, their teammates and clients understand the complexities of automated systems. When engineers design and implement technology, they write reports and documentation explaining how to use the technology. Detailed, clear reports and documentation ensure the clients are fully aware of their systems and that other engineers can fix, maintain or change the system.
While automation engineers use science as a basis for their automated processes, projects may require them to be flexible and devise new solutions rather than following the established procedures. Engineers can use their creative thinking with how they implement their systems and what those systems accomplish, especially when trying to compete with other products in the market.
Additionally, if an original plan doesn't work out, skilled engineers can adapt it to meet the client's needs.
Automation engineer salary and job outlook
The national average salary for an automation engineer is $96,217 per year. There are sometimes opportunities for bonuses depending on your employer's compensation structure. Your earnings may vary based on your employer, experience, education and location. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't have exact information on automation engineers, but it has data on mechanical engineers, which can include these engineers. The U.S. BLS projects this role to grow by 2% between 2021 and 2031. Despite this small percentage, you may observe about 17,900 job openings annually.
Educational requirements for automation engineers
Many automation engineer roles require formal education and a license with specific certifications may strengthen your skills.
Here are the credentials you can pursue to become an automation engineer:
Generally, employers prefer candidates with a strong background in science when hiring automation engineers. Attend a college or university to obtain a bachelor's degree in a science, technology or engineering field. Specific degrees can include:
Bachelor's degree in automation
Bachelor's degree in computer science
Bachelor's degree in process control
Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering
Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering
These undergraduate programs can provide you with the knowledge and skills to perform successfully in your job after graduation. Additionally, consider pursuing an internship with an engineering company while you're in school to gain hands-on experience with what you learned in the classroom. Here are some topics you may study in your program:
Computer-aided design (CAD)
Artificial intelligence (AI)
Programmable logic controllers
Information technology (IT)
Electrical principles engineering
Engineer in training certification
Many states require licensure, so plan to obtain a certification in engineer in training. You can become a certified engineer in training by passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. This exam, given by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering (NCEES), is the first step toward receiving state licensure for engineering.
College seniors and recent graduates can take this test, which measures what the student learned from college and prepares the candidate for the next level of NCEES testing. Each state has unique guidelines for the exam, but many require individuals to hold educational experience from an accredited institution or have years of engineering experience to qualify for the exam.
Professional Engineer certification
To become a fully licensed engineer, you can earn your Professional Engineer (PE) credential by passing the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam. Also given by the NCEES, this exam determines a candidate's minimum level of competency after at least four years of work experience in their field. This experience can be from an apprenticeship or a job as an entry-level engineer. Once a candidate passes the exam, they can apply for a state PE license.
Certified Automation Professional (CAP)
The International Society of Automation (ISA) provides the CAP certification after you pass an exam that tests automation engineering skills. It evaluates your knowledge of automation necessities like design, systems integration and documentation. This is a high-level certification to help experienced engineers demonstrate their expertise to employers and clients.
Certified Control System Technician (CCST)
Another ISA certification, the CCST has three levels of testing that determine your level of experience with automation engineering, especially in the manufacturing industry. This certification provides employers with proof of your expertise with control systems. CCST Level I is the first level of the exam, and CCST Level III is the highest level attainable.
Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.
Work environment for automation engineers
Automation engineers can work in various work environments based on their employer. Typical workplaces include different types of factories, manufacturing plants, call centers and processing centers or warehouses. As more service industries adopt automation technology, these engineers can find more job openings in offices. Usually, automation engineers work in a fast-paced environment, making time management, problem-solving and organization vital to this position.
Some industries in which these engineers can find opportunities include:
Food and beverage or drinks manufacturing
Medical device manufacturing
Water and wastewater treatment
Substantial infrastructure, such as road and rail
E-commerce fulfillment facilities
Careers related to automation engineering
Here are a few careers similar to an automation engineer:
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