Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Automation: The next generation

June 10, 2009
By Alison Dunn

Statistics are scary things. We’ve all heard the statistics about the skilled trades shortage in Canada. In 2004, Canadian Labour and Business estimated that the manufacturing sector would require approximately 400,000 workers in the next 15 years, due to retirement. We only have 11 years left before that happens.

At last year’s ISA show in Houston, Dr. James Truchard, President and CEO of National Instruments, warned there wouldn’t be enough process engineers by 2020. And by 2030? It hardly bears thinking about.

But is that truly the future of the automation professional in Canada? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, there are some young, skilled professionals out there today who are blazing the trails for those who will follow. They all work in different specializations, and they all came to automation in different ways, but they share one thing in common: a drive to succeed.

Here, we profile three of those young trailblazers to discover how they gained a foothold on the path to automation. Through them, perhaps we can learn the secret to attracting Canada’s young people to work in the skilled trades.


It’s time to meet the future of automation in Canada.

Like many other kids growing up in the 1990s, Frank Marcus liked to play with computers.

“I first started writing code on an IBM XT clone in the early ’90s. I think I was eight or nine,” says the Vancouver-based Marcus. “Actually, when I was in Cub Scouts, I got the computer badge for writing out a calculator program in Basic.”

But while other kids dreamt of programming video games, Marcus had something very different in mind. After completing a computer science program in high school, he became interested in networking – and, as a student at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), focused that interest on network security.

“I was interested in networking in general, because I thought it was interesting making computers talk to one another and share information,” he says. “Network security came at the tail end of that experience.”

Traditionally, working in network security means showing companies how to set up firewalls, install anti-virus software and how to properly set up a network. Marcus, however, wasn’t interested in following the usual path. After graduating from BCIT with a Diploma of Technology in Computer Systems, Data Communications and Internetworking and a Bachelor of Technology in Computer Systems, Marcus continued to work in the lab at BCIT, where he became interested in embedded systems and process control.

“There are some real questions to be answered and some unique constraints in process control that simply don’t exist in IT,” he says. By exploring the idea of security for process control systems, Marcus found a whole new career path.

Today, Marcus is a network security specialist with Vancouver-based Wurldtech Security Technologies. As a founding member of the Wurldtech team, he helped the company design and develop the original Achilles security technology used in many process control applications today. He took a background in software engineering, software testing and network security and applied it to process control, SCADA and industrial automation systems.

Marcus fills a unique role in the automation industry, and it’s also one that reflects the new reality of process control and security. At just 26 years old, he has a unique skill set for the industry. Right now, there are very few engineers who can do just what he does.

Typically, process control engineers aren’t worried about security, because they don’t have any exposure to it on the technical side. And software engineers tend not to worry about process control because they focus on computer systems. But Marcus brings those two perspectives together – to the benefit of the industry.

“Process control security all ties back into safety and reliability,” he says. “Any process control system that is safe and well-functioning also tends to be secure. If you cover all of those facets, you’re much more likely to have a well-functioning system, whether somebody’s trying to attack you or not. A lot of flaws that bring downtime to a plant can be exploited for other purposes. Doing focused security testing tends to find those kinds of errors that aren’t being found in the traditional testing processes that are going on today.”

Is Marcus a new model of automation professional? He sees it as an area that’s growing in importance – as long as our education programs start introducing industrial automation to young students.

“Throughout school, nobody ever mentioned industrial automation,” he says. “But there are more computers in the world that what sits on your desk. Having courses at the college and university level for non-traditional computer platforms is absolutely key.”

Don’t be surprised if, in the next 10 years, Dave Robinson is your boss. Robinson has already been vice president, president and past-president of the ISA’s Edmonton Section – and he’s only 32 years old. And, at last October’s ISA Expo in Houston, he was honoured with one of the association’s Emerging Leader Awards.

How did Robinson end up a leader of tomorrow?

When he first joined the ISA about seven years ago, he, like everyone else, received all the association’s information. But Robinson though that by participating, he may be able to get more out of the experience, and joined the board in a minor role.

“I wanted to get my feet wet and figure out what it was really about,” he says. “After two years, they said, ‘well, you’re new and you really seem to grab it, so why don’t you be vice president?’ So I was vice president, then president, then past president, and now I’m in the marketing role.”

Robinson’s career in automation got off to an auspicious start, when, in high school, he discovered the traditional education system wasn’t for him. Sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher drone on for an hour or so just wasn’t a good use of his time.

Robinson asked his high school guidance counselor for advice on finding a career that would keep him busy and satisfied. That counselor suggested the instrumentation program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

At NAIT, Robinson took the opportunity to explore new ways of learning. He discovered he was actually enthused about what he was learning. After graduating from NAIT and becoming a certified engineering technologist, he ended up working in the area of valves.

“If you never want to be bored, then valves are for you,” he says. “Industrial plants really need highly sophisticated valves. It’s always changing.”

And Robinson’s climb on the career path has been just as fast as his ascension through the ranks at the ISA. Today, he’s a regional manager for Western Canada with Edmonton-based Samson Controls.

Is Robinson worried about a shortage of labour? He is, he says, because it’s not a labour shortage – it’s a skills shortage. He admits that he won’t advertise a job opening because he will get 100 resumes, but no one with the right skills. Instead, he thinks industry and education need to do a better job preparing tomorrow’s automation professionals and make young people aware of the great opportunities in industry.

That’s why Robinson says he’s now working in the marketing department of his ISA section – to keep spreading the word. “How do we partner with the career counselors in the various high schools and make them aware of this great program of instrumentation?” he asks. “It’s something we’re working on.”

You could say it was a ball of fire that sparked an interest in engineering for Gary Plunkett – one that would lead him all the way to automation.

When Plunkett was in high school, he happened to attend a presentation from McMaster University called the Fireball Show. The traveling science and engineering show features scientific experiments and an interactive multimedia presentation designed to increase students’ awareness of and interest in engineering programs and careers. The show made Plunkett consider engineering as a possible course of study.

“At the time, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to get into,” he says. “I actually applied to three different universities for three totally different programs. That Fireball show made me think of McMaster and engineering… so I ended up going with engineering, because I did have an interest in electronics and it sort of got me.”

But it wasn’t until Plunkett finished his degree that he got into automation. “To be honest, we didn’t really take any courses in university that are really, specifically geared towards automation. I tried to take as many different courses as I could.

“I think it worked out well, because when you’re dealing with automation, there are many different things with computers, and sensors and wireless,” he adds. “I took courses which gave me an understanding of what’s going on when you’re using those technologies.”

After graduating, Plunkett went to work for a company doing software testing, work which he found a bit tedious and monotonous. “You just go through A equals B plus C. Can you verify that in the code? Even though it paid well, it wasn’t very interesting.”

Looking for a new challenge, Plunkett ended up working in automation at CIMCO Refrigeration – and he hasn’t looked back. The 27-year-old says the work is interesting, challenging and uses a number of different technologies, including PC controls and PLCs. But Plunkett is a rare breed in his workplace – of the 10 people who work in automation, he is the only one under 30.

What does the future hold for Plunkett? He says automation certainly isn’t going anywhere. “It’s not something I’m worried about having a future in,” he says. “People are turning to automation a lot more… You can go anywhere in the future.”

Print this page


Story continue below