A changing world of in-house technical capability

Until relatively recently, most sophisticated manufacturing companies employed their own, sometimes extensive, in-house technical capability for electrical controls engineering. However, with the drive towards lean manufacturing from the mid-1980’s to the mid-noughties, this all changed.

Companies both trimmed their own in-house staff numbers and cut back on the number of apprenticeships on offer. Indeed many stopped training apprentices entirely. At the time, there was a good supply of experienced engineers available. The in-house team would mostly carry out projects and general work themselves and only later with companies like Denca Controls,  on a project by project solution. 

Now, in 2018, how times have changed. The cut-backs in apprenticeships and other training are now beginning to look short-sighted. There are severe skills shortages across all EC&I disciplines. In today’s world, very few companies have the in-house capability of running and carrying out projects, refurbishments and new installs. Even producing accurate scope documents can be an issue. However, help is at hand with the help of suppliers like Denca.

Today, finding that skilled, qualified, competent engineer (especially one who has also a good aptitude) is difficult. Certainly, the number of proper apprenticeships to young, interested and enthusiastic engineers is now on the increase again. However, the numbers aren’t nearly sufficient to fill all the positions. The roll-out is not fast enough to satisfy industy’s needs, let alone demand.

More courses but not enough hands-on experience?

Politicians are increasingly demanding that more apprenticeship courses are made available to both meet the demand for engineers and to give young people a viable alternative to the expense of a degree.

Some universities are also offering degree courses in Automation, which includes instrumentation, electrical controls design, software development, control panel design and build, as well as installation. But the fact remains that to be a fully competent electrical controls engineering professional there must be a big element of practical, hands-on, closely supervised work experience across many disciplines. It is this added extra that distinguishes between a certificate and a competent, fully trained engineer.

Will the rush towards new apprenticeship numbers reduce the real-world capability in the short term? Furthermore, how will those that don’t get that help towards competency at that important early stage of their careers find it?

Inevitably, in the short and medium term, there will be a loss of practical experience. The time-served engineers are already nearing retirement age. Some will be persuaded to work on but others will be looking forward to some time for themselves. This is likely to affect the ability of manufacturers to produce efficiently. True, engineers deciding to move to the UK from overseas can fill some positions but this is an area of huge uncertainty just now.

Benefits of Technology

On the face of it, we have a dilemma. The increasing demands of ever more complex process systems don’t sit well with a shrinking professional engineering resource. However, there is a ray of hope. Not only does technology increase the demand for competent engineering skills to maintain and develop systems, increasing communication and automation capabilities enhance the opportunity for remote monitoring and diagnosis. 

This allows engineering resources to be used more efficiently, focussing on areas of need or implementing planned and scheduled maintenance

Additionally, new technology in the form of remote monitoring and diagnostic equipment allows engineers to constantly monitor systems in real time. Monitoring can be from a central control room or even on a laptop or handheld device. Furthermore, monitoring can be continuous, not just at the end of a shift or production cycle.

These new types of control system give information on ongoing performance and efficiency. They can advise in advance when maintenance procedures are due or warn of potential problems with equipment. For many manufacturers, this technology will be a great asset in the future. Planned maintenance will be more focused and effective as well as making best use of the currently decreasing numbers of skilled engineers.

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