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The 4 skills you need to engineer a career in automation

24 Jun 2024

Automation has woven itself into virtually every aspect of working life and in doing so, has created opportunities for the technically minded to advance through a range of diverse sectors.

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Two decades ago, global technological capabilities bore little resemblance to the advanced systems and processes we use today. In 20 years’ time, as automation continues to transform how we live and work, that will very much be the case again.  

The concept of advanced automation, despite the name, is not a modern phenomenon. While in the 21st century we discuss the effects of automation in relation to AI, work-life balance and ethics, the invention of the water wheel to eliminate human or animal labour in roughly the first century BCE was an unparalleled form of automation for its time. 

Arguably, there is no perceivable end to the automation period, so as the world of work, the people within it and the technologies disrupting the landscape evolve, what skills should someone aspiring to a career in automation engineering strive for?

Soft Skills 

It goes without saying that the role of an automation engineer is highly technical. Responsible for the development, testing and implementation of software tools, programmes and automated technical operations, tasks can range from the simple to the complex. 

Automation engineers are often required to work cohesively with multidisciplinary teams and for that reason, it can be useful to have a solid grasp of workplace soft skills, in addition to compulsory hard skills. 

Automation engineers are expected to take complex, highly nuanced information and relay it back to not only their peers, but to people who do not have a strong technical background. This requires expert communication skills, as well as an ability to collaborate. 

Adaptability is also a crucial skill for automation engineers as the nature of the role involves an ever-changing technological landscape. Employees within this field need to keep an open mind and be willing to try new and emerging methodologies. 

There is a degree of overlap in soft and hard skills as qualified automation engineers should have strong problem-solving capabilities, to be put towards the identification, analysis and correction of technical problems.

When brushing up on the vital hard skills that an automation engineering position demands, professionals should remember not to de-prioritise those all-important soft skills. 

Programming languages

Natural talent and learning as you go can take a determined person very far. However, there are instances where a particular qualification is not just preferred, but mandatory. An in-depth knowledge of programming languages is one such example. 

If you are considering a career as an automation engineer, then a foundational understanding of programming languages and how they are applied is compulsory, as you will frequently need to write and maintain the code that keeps operation systems running. 

The choice of programming language greatly impacts the success of automation in the workplace, as it will provide and improve versatility, scalability and integration. 

There are pros and cons to all systems and each company will have their own policies around which ones they will permit, but there are a number of programming languages that aspiring automation engineers should consider learning.

For example, Python is an ever-popular option as it is simple, agile and its large community offers a vast open-source library for a multitude of automation tasks. Similarly, JavaScript, which is widely-used and is also very versatile and easily navigated, enables browser automation, web scraping, API integration and automated front-end UI testing. 

For anyone thinking about a career in automation engineering, who may lack the necessary programming language skills, there are a number of accredited online coding courses, as well as resources such as third-level education, books, online tutorials and blogs.

AI and machine learning

Despite fears over the application and training of AI technology, AI and machine learning is here to stay and will continue to heavily impact the working world. 

A recent IBM Global AI Adoption Index showed that 59pc of responding enterprises are already working with AI and intend to accelerate and increase their level of investment in the technology. 

As AI advances, global workplaces will have to evolve in tandem, meaning automation engineers will have to have a standard level of AI and machine learning skills to stay competitive. At this point we are all fairly well-versed in the negative aspects of AI adoption, such as increased security risks and potential job displacement. 

But AI, when integrated ethically and intelligently, has the potential to improve the way in which a company operates, for employees as well as the business owners and consumers. 

Smart decision-making features enable automated systems to make choices based on data analytics and complex algorithms, reducing the need for human input on labour-intensive tasks and projects dependent on real-time updates. These adaptive systems can recognise patterns over time, spotting trends and optimising workflow. 

AI and machine learning should almost be viewed as an additional co-worker. Its role is not to replace or to substitute, rather it is there to assist and improve aspects of working life as a collaborative resource. 

Control systems

Control systems, in relation to automation engineering, are a set of mechanical or electronic devices that regulate other devices or systems using control loops. Control loops themselves are systems composed of the hardware components and software control functions necessary to measure and adjust the variables of a process. For example, how a thermostat sensor continuously measures a room and takes action to keep it at the desired pre-set temperature. 

Control systems are a common aspect of automation engineering, therefore people within this field should have a strong knowledge of traditional platforms, such as PLCs (programmable logic controller) and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition).

As control systems can be complex, with wide-ranging consequences if incorrectly managed, this is another skill that requires considerable training to master, as well as consistent re-education to stay ahead. 

Additionally, as control systems often need tweaking, automation engineers may have to utilise other skills, such as programming, during the process. Those who can show they have talent in the area of control systems are likely to have an edge in job interviews and work trials, as it is a much sought-after qualification. 

Find out how emerging tech trends are transforming tomorrow with our new podcast, Future Human: The Series. Listen now on Spotify, on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts.

Laura Varley
By Laura Varley

Laura Varley is a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic. She has a background in technology PR and journalism and is borderline obsessed with film and television, the theatre, Marvel and Mayo GAA. She is currently trying to learn how to knit.

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