What's new
What's new

is the field of robotics and automation worth going into?


Mar 12, 2001
New Haven, CT
A career in automation and robotics is possible if your long term goal is to be a contractor rather than a employee. The process involves hiring in at a company, staying no longer than one project or two years, whichever comes first, and then jumping to the next employer. After about 10 years you will have gained sufficient experience and industry contacts that you will be able to enter the world of the self employed and compete for the outsourced work.

Companies that are cost conscience will outsource their design. build and install automation work rather than maintain a bloated staff of software, electrical, and mechanical engineers. The reason for this is that a successful product or process may have a life of decades. It may only take months to produce a prototype once the need for the product or process is defined. Once this happens the engineering staff is no longer required. You just need a few workers for product support, field service, sales, and incremental improvements.

The solution here is rather simple, seek out work for the custom machine builders and avoid working for the end user. In my own career I work for a company that makes custom test stands for aircraft parts that get used in the factories and repair stations.

Sure I could go to work for the big aircraft OEM down the street (our customer) but I have a lot more fun designing the machines and getting them to run so I work for the place that makes the machines.

To your point my projects tend to last anywhere from 9 months to 1.5 yrs but when one machine ships my employer puts me on the next one which is far more preferable to getting laid off when the project is over.

I also will disagree with you on one other point. While I am sure not all employers are the same often company who runs the machines rather than builds them, treat good employees very well, and maintain sharp teams of support engineers. It's s just those guys tend to be firefighters whose #1 priority is keeping the line going.

In our line of work when the machine goes down, our customer can't ship $650,000/day worth of widgets which go into aircraft engines, then their customer can't ship $8million aircraft engines, which means their customer can't ship $100million airplanes. So end result is they tend to keep some smart people on hand who can keep the line going for when things go wrong, and when they aren't fighting fires usually they keep them busy with smaller lower priority projects or compliance audits and stuff.

More interesting question I have always wondered is how to get more education in the field and or branch out and work on different types of machinery. Most of my stuff is pumps, valves and hydraulic automation. Part of me has always wondered how I can get into working on robotics and machines with moving parts, but yet so much of my experience has been down a slightly different path.

At the same time I really do enjoy a lot of what I do. I keep on hoping that one day we'll get another robotics project in at work. The fun thing too about working for a custom machine builder is that from time to time a neat new type of project comes in the door and you have to invent things that you have never done before. Usually the company looses their shirts on the first one but if you get lucky these can be the best projects to work on.
Distopian future with nothing but temps and middle managers. Beautiful ;)

One thing that does seem to happen with all the pissed off and laid off brilliant engineers who would do the work in their basements whether employed or not, is that they end up combining and starting new products, services, and industries that innovate across the board, and sometimes even out-compete their quodam employers. Of course in many other cases, the big employers who put them in the street, or their competitors simply buy the new outfit when it looks like the products could be successful. Innovation continues, if not even accelerated, but the environment and marketplace is "different"....

As always in history, it ends up most successful for people who understand how to discover, analyze market prospects, & finance and manage such endeavors. So it sort of plays back to your argument, but is a lot more interesting, innovative, and potentially "disrupting" just under the surface.

Last edited:

Muffler Bearing

Jan 19, 2010
I've been absent from the forum for a long time, but wanted to come back to share some of my experiences with this.

When I started my career, anyone who could program a PLC in my area was worth their weight in gold. The guys that could do it semi-competently all quickly became their small integration shops, and some manufacturers would throw money at their internally skilled personnel to retain them, oftentimes even eclipsing manager salaries. All I wanted to do for years was become a competent PLC programmer, I knew it would open so many doors. And for a while, it did. One of the first questions asked to me at many places was my specific PLC programming experience.

I don't see a really positive future in automation alone. In logistics for warehouses, sure, but not for manufacturing.

All the manufacturers (auto parts) around here are struggling to hire people. So they all want to automate, so they are willing to invest resources to automate. Problem is, they want to automate very complex processes without hiring competent external firms, they want to hire kids out of tech school to build technically complex work cells at a third of the price of an integrator. Most manufacturers in the area have now started to build at least some of their automated equipment in-house, with plans to expand the capabilities further every year

So in the last five years my previous company had an expectation list for new engineers with having a BS in engineering, 3d tooling design skills, and PLC/robotics programming. We got brand new engineers straight out of college, management gives them no training, and then the new guys move on to another job quickly when they can't meet expecations. All this for basically a below average engineering salary. This was previously a company that was in the top of the area in salary, and is now struggling to stay afloat even with hiring "superstars" that meet those criteria.

I've personally made moves in my career to get away from manufacturing. The last bastion of respectable salary for engineers, dealing with the factory automation, now barely makes as much as maintenance with 10x the stress. I started my MBA , and got an entry level engineering position for a multinational that pays 20% more and lets me work from home.

I would like to echo some of the other people here, I think that if automation is something you want to do, it has to be as a contractor working for yourself.