Automation Engineering Survey Results |

Automation Engineering Survey Results

September 142015
Automation Engineering Survey Results

Perspectives from the 2014 Pharmaceutical Automation Roundtable

By Bill Lydon, Editor

Pharmaceutical automation leaders from around the world gathered for the annual Pharmaceutical Automation Roundtable (PAR) at Bristol Myers Squibb in Devens, Massachusetts to discuss a number of automation challenges facing their companies. While the content was specific to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, these challenges are certainly applicable to all industry segments. This article is about the results of an Automation Engineer Survey of pharmaceutical companies.

Dave Adler ([email protected]) conducted the survey prior to the PAR meeting and presented the results of the Automation Engineering Survey at the meeting. Respondents included more than 300 people from pharmaceutical companies.

Participant Demographics


Facility location demographics:

  • 66% North America
  • 28% Europe
  • 6% other parts of the world


Respondents had varying responsibilities:

  • 27% biotech API
  • 23% bulk API
  • 17% pharmaceutical Aseptic
  • 17% pharmaceutical solids
  • 16% packaging

Work Scope

The current work scope of participants is:

  • 67% site focused, mostly dedicated to operations at a single location
  • 17% central resource, global consulting, governance, or project management role
  • 13% network focused, work with sites that have similar processes or technologies
  • 3% other


The educational background of participants:

  • 59% 4-year technical degree (e.g. BS)
  • 23% post-graduate technical degree (MS and/or PhD)
  • 13% 2-year technical degree
  • 5% no technical degree

The majority have a degree in chemical engineering, electrical engineering, electrical engineering technology, or automation engineering technology.

Experience Level

Experience level of participants:

  • 61% joined their current company with over 5 years outside experience
  • 21% joined their current company directly after finishing school and have worked under 5 years

The majority of automation professionals have 10-30 years of experience.

Training and Development Activities

Respondents were asked to rate training and development activities based on their impact and effectiveness. The top three cited are involvement in automation projects, peer interactions on the job, and self-directed on-the-job training. Not surprisingly new professionals responded that technical mentors were more valuable to them. The lower ranking items in the survey included vendor training classes, and access to technical assistance through the internet.

Interactions with professional organizations (ISA, user groups, conferences, trade shows, etc.) were ranked the least valuable and new professionals ranked it lower than more experienced respondents. Coaching from management was rated at the bottom as well.

Comments from respondents included:

  • Formal training for some of the basics followed by hands-on involvement on an automation project with oversight from an experienced engineer.
  • Getting involved in a project that requires commissioning and code development. This will help the engineer to understand the hardware aspect of the control strategy and the software aspect of the algorithm for control.
  • Provide mini-projects that allow the engineer to become familiar with the practices and standards of the area. If they are very inexperienced in the field, provide them a "sandbox" to practice and experiment in.
  • Do a project including setup a system, troubleshoot hardware and electrical issues.
  • Having a technical mentor who can institute a development plan, provide technical guidance and train on the proper way to do accomplish tasks in the company environment.
  • New engineers need to be exposed to equipment and operations in the field. They need to understand the process, and how it is operated and maintained. Shadowing an instrument technician for a period of time would be a reasonable means to achieve the latter.
  • Learn the process they will support. Listen to the Operators that have been there for years because they KNOW more than you.

Respondents were asked the significant differences in training today versus how you were trained in past years?

  • Many years ago Automation Engineers needed to know instrumentation, computer hardware, and application software (programming). Nowadays, Automation Engineers need to know a much broader range of technologies and have IT & Networking capabilities, so much more training is required
  • Training today emphasizes modular and class-based solutions whereas in the past these techniques were little known. Reproducible code is imperative to high quality (read: low-variability) solutions today.
  • Automation Engineers are expected to take on projects more quickly than in the past. I worked alongside an experienced professional and developed at my own pace. Today, it is almost a trial by fire.
  • Skill set needs have changed. Instead of handling 4-20mAC/DC and ladders, an engineer has to understand IP addressing, subnets, VB and SQL.
  • The younger generation is used to a Plug-and-Play environment, but the industry is not producing Plug-and-Play components/solutions.
  • If the engineers today don't have their laptop and phone they are lost!!!! Most can't tell the difference between a Crescent Wrench and Channel Locks.
  • Past Years: Steep learning curve, training on live, production systems, more margin for error, allowed for learning. Today: High availability of development systems accompanied with expectation of perfection with delivery of project, less allowance for learning, no margin for error.
  • Less time spent on the basics of control, instrumentation and infrastructure. It does not develop automation engineers with a broad understanding of the functionality of automation engineering.
  • Budget limitations challenge the ability to send engineers to specialized training or trade shows.
  • There is far more web-based training available, which allows easy access to knowledge but carries the risk to reduce F2F time with peers.
  • Year after year less technical training from vendor or providers is available. Management is moving to promote more self-directed on-the job training in a trial-and-error mode.
  • The Social Media and Internet access of today has allowed learning to become a global event that can span many fields of automation support. You can sit at your PC and learn from experienced professionals at your own pace. This is an advantage of today’s training environment, but nothing beats getting your hands dirty and learning from your mistakes and other people’s mistakes.
  • Manuals that are available online today are much less robust than 20 years ago so it is harder for engineers to learn on their own.

Automation Tasks

Forty-two percent responded that the majority of time is spent on control systems engineering, approximately 18% automation system infrastructure engineering, followed by process knowledge engineering.


Respondents were asked to rate satisfaction with their decision to work in automation:

  • 47% satisfied
  • 39% very satisfied
  • 11% neutral
  • 3% dissatisfied

Frustration expressed in comments included:

  • Automation is perceived as a black box and peers from other functions do not show any interest to understand it, and sometimes expect you to function as their data source.
  • High work load, impossible peaks.
  • In our department, all engineers are paid at differing rates (some twice as much) but expected to fulfill the same roles.
  • Not a valued profession within company.
  • We are what we chose to communicate; so we are the victims of our own work hard now, communicate later work ethic.
  • There is no connection made by the company between moderate increase in investment in automation to enable significant reductions in operations, personnel costs, and reduced batch cycle times.


Forty-one percent of work on average is performed by contractors or other external staff. The survey respondents indicated that contractor and in-house staff skills are equal. This challenges are that outside contractors typically have more knowledge than in-house people. Respondents believe work that leads to the best career development opportunities are being performed by in-house personnel rather than contractors.

About the PAR Meetings and this Article Series

Every year, I have the opportunity to attend the Pharmaceutical Automation Roundtable (PAR) meetings, as the only outside observer. The 2014 PAR meeting was hosted at Bristol-Myers Squibb Devons, MA location. Lead automation engineers from around the world attended this invitation-only, two-day event. This group of engineers has a wealth of practical knowledge and knowhow and is willing to share with other participants - truly learning from each other. The PAR meetings represent a very knowledgeable group of automation professionals gathered in one place at any one time to discuss automation issues. The participating companies included Amgen, Biogen, Idec, J&J, Eli Lilly, NNE, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis. The PAR meetings consist of various presentations given by PAR members on specific automation topics. Other members then provide comments about their experience, ideas, and challenges relating to the topics. This article series presents a summary of those conversations with each article highlighting one or more of the topics covered by the PAR meetings. Comments by specific PAR members are reported anonymously.

About PAR

PAR was founded about 16 years ago by Dave Adler and John Krenzke, both with Eli Lilly and Company. At the time, the purpose of the roundtable was to provide a means of benchmarking and sharing best practices for automation groups among peer pharmaceutical companies. The group specifically does not discuss confidential or proprietary information, cost or price of products, price or other terms of supply contracts, plans to do business or not do business with specific suppliers, contractors, or other companies.

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