Machine Safety: System integrators report shortage of safety resources

Those adopting safety automation are seeing reductions in machine downtime and easier maintenance, in addition to lowering risk for workers. With a shortage of industry talent remaining a concern, these are positive results.


Safety automation adoption, like other technologies, has early adopters, who can reap more benefits sooner than those who wait, according to this graphic for the Control Engineering Machine Safety Blog, from J.B. Titus.Does the adoption of safety automation have its own head of steam or is it still struggling for shelf space in the market? Safety automation became a new solution for machine guarding in 2002 when NFPA 79 opened the door for safety PLCs and safety networks. Since then, competing automation suppliers have rushed new safety automation technology to the market offering opportunities to replace older hard wired machine guarding devices. Early adopters have been major users of this new cost effective approach which also bends the curve toward increased profits through reductions in machine downtime.

As applications of machine safety automation continue to grow with manufacturers you would expect that the adoption rate would significantly grow. This strategy is born out via the Rogers Adoption Curve theory and in fact the adoption curve enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s for standard PLC technology. Both technologies for automation offer similar basic cost benefits to manufacturers.

So, what’s the problem?

A significant problem with safety automation is that there’s a shortage of engineering resources for developing application based control systems with integrated safety automation technology. A Control Engineering, June 2013, System Integrator Giants of 2013 article states:

Attracting and retaining talented programmers and engineers continues to be our top priority. We have experienced phenomenal growth in automation systems integration projects and continue to see increasing need for additional staff.  With the “automation economy” heating up, we see increasing competition to attract and retain quality employees.

Challenge: Because our goal is to continue to grow this places a strong emphasis on recruiting and retaining our professionals.  We seek to realize growth through retention and organic growth.

Our biggest concern for 2013 is the constraint to increase our skilled workforce. There is an extremely high demand for our automation and safety-related engineering services, and the development process to grow people to expert status takes years. There is a continuous deficit in the industry’s workforce that cannot keep up with the continuous demand for the services we provide.

Recruiting talent in this industry is an ongoing challenge for two reasons: 1) Demographic retiring with needed experience. 2) Universities and colleges are not producing engineers/technologist in this field as past demand decreased over last 30 years with manufacturing moving off shore. This has left a deficit as a nation.

Confirming this claim was a recent presentation by Dean Gary Bertoline of Purdue University. He described the deceleration of engineering graduates with application knowhow over the past 40 years as a mistake by educators. Instead they focused on graduates with academic achievements. So, what do we make out of such a telling story? Maybe it’s time to make lemonade from lemons? Isn’t this an opportunity?

Has this presented you with any new perspectives? Add your comments or thoughts to the discussion by submitting your ideas, experiences, and challenges in the comments section below.

J.B. Titus, CFSE

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