Monday, March 10, 2008

Things That Make Things Move

I have one of those fabulous careers where no one really understands what it is that you do every day.

"And what is it that you do at work?"

"I'm an engineer."

"Oh, what kind? Mechanical? Electrical?"

"Well, electrical, kinda. I'm a controls engineer."

"Oh that's nice. What does that mean?"

And then, usually what results, is a long dissertation, given by me, to whomever is asking, about what it is that I do, in language that most normal people don't understand.

After 11 years in my industry, I have finally come up with an answer that usually appeases everyone.

I make things that make things move. More specifically, I make the things that build cars and trucks, move.

Not the robots, the robot guys do that, but everything else, and by everything else, I mean conveyors, clamps, welders, metal presses, turntables, and just about everything else in an assembly plant that moves any amount of distance, for any amount of time.

I don't actually build the tooling I work on, that's the mechanical guys' job. They design the tool to fit a process, say building up the doors of a vehicle, and they set up a sequence of operations, and that's where we come in.

It starts with the hardware end of things, the stuff you can actually touch: control panels that most commonly contain a processor with inputs and outputs, relays, fuses, circuit breakers, terminals, and a ton of wire. There are smaller panels that serve different purposes, and a slew of cables and cords that connect it all together. On top of all of this, you have air systems for valves that move cylinders back and forth; water systems to keep the welders cool; hydraulic systems to move the real heavy stuff that air isn't powerful enough to; and safety systems to keep the morons out of harm's way. All of this has to be sized and investigated to make sure that you have enough juice, air, water, or oil to do what you need to, and that it will stop when it's supposed to.

Once that's established, the software comes in. (Note that I say established, because as I have come to learn, nothing is ever really finished. There are always changes that get made, in various stages of the game, and just when you think you're're really not.)

The software is quite literally the brains of the operation. Using the sequence that the mechanical guys set out, we go about putting the steps in, one by one. When it gets dumped into the processor, after a few trials and errors (and sometimes dumb luck), when you hit the go button, everything functions the way it's supposed to, when it's supposed to, all just a series of 1's and 0's that turn signals on and off.

Put those two elements together, add a whole lot of time, frustration, and very long days in an environment that is always noisy, usually pretty dirty, located in states and cities in some of the strangest locations...and poof!

Before I got into this business, vehicles just showed up at the dealerships on carriers from assembly plants. I had absolutely no idea what it took to build a car from sheet metal till it rolled off the end of the line, how many people it took, how many moving parts are involved, and just what happens when any of those things stop working. There are days when I wish it was still that way. :)

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