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A Day in the Life of a Robotics Engineer

Robotics engineers design robots, maintain them, develop new applications for them, and conduct research to expand the potential of robotics. This is a rapidly developing field, with advances in computing constantly opening up new possibilities for robotics applications. Manufacturing, the first industry to invest heavily in robotics, remains the primary employer in the area, but recent years have seen rapid expansion of research and engineering in robots for such applications as agriculture, mining, nuclear power-plant maintenance, and a variety of other fields. The profession offers jobs for a wide range of temperaments. Visionary robotics engineers can work designing experimental mobile robots, with applications ranging from medical and military uses to designs aimed at creating vehicles capable of piloting themselves on other planets. More down-to-earth jobs involve designing new production-line robots, often with programmable arms, and maintaining and upgrading older production-line installations. Somewhere in between lie those engineers designing and producing robots for expanding but tested fields, such as self-piloting crop harvesters and automated nuclear-safety equipment. Robotics engineers must have the same disciplined attention to detail required of all engineers, but the relative novelty of the field puts an additional premium on creativity. It’s a safe bet that twenty years from now, robots will be employed in a vast range of new activities. The engineers who can best anticipate needs which can be successfully filled by robots, and who can work effectively in engineering teams to develop them, will be extremely successful in the field.

Paying Your Dues

As in most engineering disciplines, graduate education is usually a necessity for advancement in the field. This can range from one to two years of additional master’s in electrical and/or mechanical engineering work for an operating engineer, to several years for the doctorate, which opens up jobs in design and research. The most sought-after jobs go to engineers with academic backgrounds that allow them to combine knowledge in computer science with applied physical sciences. As automated systems must be designed to optimally integrate into the production line, knowledge of the manufacturing environment in which the robot will operate is invaluable.

Present and Future

Robotics dates back to the Renaissance, when automata, clockwork machines designed to imitate people, were built for entertainment. The modern field really dates to the industrial revolution, when machines capable of accurately performing repetitive tasks were designed. In 1804, Joseph-Marie Jacquard designed a machine capable of following instructions on a punched paper tape. Modern robotics dates from this invention, though the field did not truly develop until later, when computers capable of guiding a programmable machine through a series of complex tasks were created. Today, robotics is a booming field, with an expanding role in manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and a wide range of other fields, including jobs too hazardous to be performed by people.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

At this point in their career, robotics engineers function as professional apprentices, working on elements of larger design or programming problems under more senior engineers who manage the overall progress of projects.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Robotics engineers with five to ten years of experience are the middle managers of the profession. With sufficient expertise to oversee the work of their junior colleagues, they have substantial oversight responsibilities in the design and development of robotics projects, and, as they gain experience, they begin to become involved in the generation of project concepts. Some will leave to join clients of their manufacturing firms to manage their robotic operations.

TEN YEARS OUT

Robotics engineers now have significant responsibilities. In design and manufacturing companies, they may be responsible for managing the development and/or manufacture of new robots. They likely spend significant time with potential clients, analyzing their needs and developing proposals for robotics applications to meet them. If they have gone to work in a client industry, they are responsible for managing robotics operations and working with robotics manufacturing firms as problems or new needs arise. Alternately, they may have struck out on their own, manufacturing robots in their specific areas of engineering expertise.