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Electicians and electronics technicians: working as a problem-solving team

By Jack Smith

March 2012

More electricians are becoming familiar with ScopeMeter® portable oscilloscope operation.

More electricians are becoming familiar with ScopeMeter® portable oscilloscope operation.

As industrial equipment becomes more complex, the lines that separate the roles of those maintaining this equipment become increasingly blurred.

Job titles and duties between electricians and electronics technicians used to have clear dividing lines. If tasks were power-related, electricians took care of them. If controls, sensors, or signal processing were involved, electronics technicians came to the rescue.

Now, overlap exists in the day-to-day work that electricians and electronics technicians do.

Troubleshooters are problem solvers

With increasing emphasis on productivity, uptime, and reliability, operators are taking on more responsibility to ensure their machines operate properly, including some preventive maintenance tasks.

For example, some electricians are learning how electronic equipment such as variable frequency drives (VFDs) and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) operate while some electronics and engineering technicians are learning how power quality affects electronic circuits, and how electronic circuits affect power quality.

Consequently, more electricians are becoming familiar with ScopeMeter® portable oscilloscope operation; more electronics technicians are becoming familiar with clamp meter and power quality analyzer operation. For example, electricians use oscilloscopes as a cost-effective means to determine the step-down ratio and polarity of current transformers. Electronic technicians use clamp meters to verify and troubleshoot current input signals connected to PLCs and other pieces of equipment that measure power. Working together, electricians and electronics technicians use power quality analyzers to ensure that power management systems are operating at optimum efficiency.

More electronics technicians are becoming familiar with power quality analyzer operation.

More electronics technicians are becoming familiar with power quality analyzer operation.

Problem-solving teams

Electricians and electronics technicians can work together as a team to expedite equipment repairs. For example, electricians can troubleshoot equipment to isolate trouble to a variable frequency drive (VFD) or programmable logic controller (PLC). Then technicians can decide if the defective unit can be repaired in-house or should be sent to the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for repair. Technicians can usually determine which PLC module is defective or which VFD power transistor has failed.

Consider the case of one facility’s older plastic injection molding machine. When the mold clamp failed to move, the operator automatically decided it must be an electronics problem because the machine had very few breakdowns until the company replaced the outdated controls with a PLC about eight months earlier.

The operator described the problem to the in-house electronics technician. First, the technician accessed the diagnostic page on the operator interface for the injection molding machine’s PLC. Preliminary diagnostics indicated that there were no faults.

The electronics technician asked one of the company’s electricians to help troubleshoot the problem. Together, they traced the problem to the solenoid that controls the hydraulics for the clamp. The electrician checked the coil’s resistance with his digital multimeter (DMM) and found that the coil was open.

The electrician replaced the solenoid and worked with the technician and operator to verify that the clamp closed and the machine operated properly. Within 35 minutes, the machine was back in operation.

Changes in manufacturing trends

While many traditional manufacturing job roles have disappeared, ironically manufacturers continue to face a shortage of skilled labor.

Doing more with less has been the manufacturing mantra for quite some time. In the August 2011 issue of Maintenance Technology magazine, Fluke Corporation president Barbara Hulit wrote in a commentary titled, “Industry Outlook: Harnessing Technology for Tomorrow” “Compared to even 10 years ago, a far smaller number of technicians are now responsible for a significantly more complex workload - and the stakes are high.

“There are, at this point, many, well-documented phenomena occurring simultaneously, including the retirement of highly skilled baby boomers, a marked difference in interests and skills of new technicians coming into the job market, the pace of systems automation and the lingering impact of the Great Recession on team size and composition. These factors are having enormous impact on the workforce and the way it works.

“It’s unlikely that facility operations teams will return to previous sizes. Some of that will be made up for by automation. The rest of the gap has to be cleared by what smaller teams are prepared to do on the floor. They need a broader set of applications and system training. They need to think systemically. They need information at their fingertips. Unfortunately, newer technicians probably won’t have the same equipment-specific knowledge as their predecessors. So, how do they close the gap? They might call on outside experts, but with costs still closely managed, that might not be an option. The real answer is better technology and training, in-house.”

Since change is inevitable - especially in manufacturing - focus on developing strategies that leverage these changes. Multi-skilled problem-solving teams will benefit greatly from “better technology and in-house training.”