Education is generally not moving quickly enough to keep up with technology. While materials and processes may not change as quickly, the machines doing the work are evolving very rapidly. Math is a good foundation to stand on for education. However, as electronics evolve, I’m seeing less ladder logic and more programming. If electronics are little black boxes filled with what might only be described as “black magic,” then certainly, code is some form of grimoire (a magic spell book).
But wait: Mechanical engineers (MEs) are not programmers. It is important for these designers to understand materials and processes, not code. However, many engineers end up on the factory floor instead of a design office. As movements like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) drive product lines to become more electronic and software driven, should mechanical engineers start learning programming?
MEs often take ladder logic. As higher-level script programming starts to integrate with controllers and drives, however, it is becoming increasingly beneficial to have some type of programming understanding. While there can be a mentality opposed to change, new devices are offering higher programming languages that might give the competition a leg up.
Educational institutions should consider working basic programming into the curriculum for MEs so they are more comfortable when they get into the field. An ME might work in a factory that runs on ladder logic, but what happens when a manager wants to integrate a robotic arm that runs off a higher programming language on one of the lines? There is a trend to future-proof production lines, but I haven’t heard much about future-proofing our employees. Ladder logic will not go away and educated engineers will always have work. But newer lines will see ladder logic take on a less important role. Automation and robotics will increase, and so will high-level programming.
Engineers don’t have to be experts, and there are plenty of resources available to exercise your electronics and programming skills. Many companies saw this trend coming and were able to get ahead of the curve by making industrial developer boards. Bosch Rexroth, DIGI, Gramalto, Texas Instruments, and more have products like Arduino or Raspberry Pi, but designed for industrial applications. Industrial boards tend to be more robust, and are able to handle greater vibrations and temperatures. In addition, to help companies understand the IIoT, many of these industrial boards come with multiple ways to connect including USB, Zigbee, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth Low Energy. Bosch Rexroth has even developed a board with built-in sensors a designer might use.
Mechanical engineers don’t need to be programmers. Keep in mind most of the production line is mechanical. But if we’re going to be problem solvers, we need to be informed in multiple disciplines. It is hard to fix a problem if you don’t know you have one. If you don’t know about new IIoT abilities that could help your production, or are feeling intimidated by equipment that uses higher-level programming, that lack of knowledge and understanding is the first problem to fix.