Project ideas for getting into automation?


Thread Starter


Hi all,

I have recently been taken on as a trainee Automation Engineer for a New Zealand based company that handles milk / food production for the plants in the area.

When I started I was been given a rather large amount of books to read through (but what good is knowledge if I can't apply it to anything?).

I've also been told "don't worry about the math, just learn the concepts" but unfortunately all of the concepts are based around math so far...

I'd love to hear some project suggestions (home based) for testing myself and as a result becoming a better automation engineer.

My background is IT and software development for 2 years, with little electrical or mechatronics experience.

I have an interest in flight mechanics / space stuff. I'd love to eventually work my way to up building my own quadcopter from scratch.

Thanks in advance! Any suggestions would be fantastic.

Curt Wuollet

I find that the electronics and mechanical experience will make you a better control engineer because a lot of what is done involves successfully interfacing to the real world, that is, knowing how to do it is at least as important as what to do. When ever you get a chance, look at how things were done and _why_. When the books get boring, go open a panel and grab the print and work out how the thing actually does what it does. The trouble free machines are that way because all the bits and pieces are properly applied. The most basic things have to be done right. For example, connections are one of the biggest, if not the biggest, problem area across the whole spectrum of one-off machines. Power distribution is another. Using the right component for a given task would be number three. This is the most common shortcoming I find in newbies, it all looks good on the screen. And it's hard to learn what you need to learn at home, because you won't have motor buckets, VFDs, sensors chosen by a lunatic, contactors, miles of wire and nightly washdown. You also won't have well meaning souls swapping sensors and jumpering things. And before you work on inertial and gyroscopic control, I suggest you buy a $69 Automation Direct (Koyo) Click and ponder how to (successfully) emulate a washing machine. Some of this may not apply to a process industry but you'll soon find that a lot of what is needed to make things work is pretty low level. Your stress level a will be much lower if you can deal with the real world.


Bruce Durdle

The essential basic concepts for automation, process control, etc all reduce to one thing - conservation laws. These apply to mass, energy, or momentum.
You can write these as differential equations (maths) or as simple statements -

What goes in must either come out or build up inside (material or energy)

An applied force will be matched by a reaction force - any residual will result in acceleration (momentum).

Note that for control or automation applications you need to include the dynamic element as that's the one that makes things interesting - the mechanical engineers or process specialists will tend to ignore that and consider only the steady-state condition.

To get into mechatronics, go down to Dick Smith or Toyworld and get some Meccano - make sure its got some motors etc. Try and replicate in basic form some of the equipment you are working with. Then look at interfacing it with electronics - interfacing is another fun area. If you want some ideas, contact me off-line at bmdurdle(at)clear(dot)net(dot)nz.

Gerald Beaudoin

It was suggested to maybe get some Mecano and play a bit. If you want to get into some really serious play.....try Lego Mindstorms. With Mindstorms, you can model all sorts of mecanical arrangements and also get to do the PLC programming to drive it all. No, I don't work for Lego, but I have been using this platform for several years in an after school program at a local elementary school. Its also used at university level ! A simple Google will show you some pretty sophisticated applications of a "toy"!

It will run you about $500, but your kids will love you for it and they will certainly get a really good career head start.