So You Want to be a Robotics Engineer
By Mikell Taylor, Senior Director of Sales Operations and Customer Support, Veo Robotics
I’ve been a robotics geek since I was 16 years old. From my first robot—built for a FIRST competition—I knew that I wanted to keep building robots for the rest of my life.
In the days before Robotics Engineering degrees were available, I found my way into the industry by pursuing a degree in Electrical Engineering. I strategically worked my way towards a robotics specialization by choosing robotics projects for classes, getting internships that introduced me to microcontrollers, sensors, and controls, taking extra courses in mechanical and software engineering, and signing up to work with professors who did robotics research.
Thanks to some networking, I landed an awesome job in robotics after college and I’ve been here ever since. I’m pretty happy with my trajectory, but I often think about how I would have done things differently if I’d known as a new graduate some of the things that I know now. So, if you’re interested in robots but you’re stuck on the question “How do I get into robotics in the first place?” here are some thoughts from someone who’s been there and is now on the other side of the interview table.
Recently, many of the engineering graduates that have applied for jobs at Veo fit a common profile: their degree may be specific (mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science) or broad (robotics engineering, mechatronics engineering), but their hands-on experience is all highly multidisciplinary—they build robots and do the CAD, programming, electronics, and sensing all themselves. They’re Jacks and Janes of all trades, masters of none.
On one hand, this is great because robotics is a highly multidisciplinary field and being able to speak a little bit of each language is really important. But, in the professional world, no one person builds a robot. Teams build robots—teams of people who each specialize in one area, like software development or mechanism design.
Prospective employers often struggle when reviewing multidisciplinary resumes because it’s not always obvious how a candidate with multidisciplinary skills aligns with open positions in hardware or software engineering. So if you want to pursue a career at a robotics company, you can increase your chances of success by developing a specialty (through research, side projects, or electives) and making it easier for your employer to identify how you’ll fit into a larger team.
Another issue you might run into is the fact that many robotics companies—especially startups—are developing and maintaining a single platform, and by the time you come on the scene, they’ve already designed the robot and are now focused on iterating or optimizing a subsystem. This means you’ll be involved in the design of a small piece of a robot instead of helping to design a whole robotic system from scratch. If your goal is to work on bringing a complex system together from start to finish, this reality can be disappointing.
With these challenges, the search for a robotics job can be overwhelming. I know; I’ve been there. What I wish I had known when I was first starting my job search, is that there are exciting opportunities for robotics in the industrial systems integration industry (check out the Robotic Industries Association Career Center for examples).
The industrial systems integration industry supports manufacturers in figuring out how to build the automated workcells that carry out particular manufacturing processes. For example, if a manufacturer says, “I need to move a dishwasher from one conveyor belt to another, and it needs to flip upside down in the process,” or maybe, “I need to precisely spot-weld this part of a car to another part of a car,” a system integrator finds and develops the right combination of robotics, sensors, software, and other components to make it happen. They create entirely new automated or robotic systems from start to finish, in bursts of several months, or even years. For each project, they design the system according to the manufacturer’s requirements, research and spec out the technology and components that will enable it to work, prototype it in their lab, work out the bugs, and then install the completed system at the manufacturer’s production site for commissioning. Each of these self-contained projects is an opportunity to make something completely new and unique—a perfect fit for anyone who loves the complete lifecycle of a robotics project.
I didn’t even know the industry existed until I started working at Veo, and I’m just blown away every time I see the complexity of the things they build. They incorporate computer vision, inspection sensors, control systems, safety systems, human/machine interfaces, and, of course, powerful and precise robots. Some system integrators even build their own custom robots as part of a workcell when an off-the-shelf model won’t do. The design process is structured and rigorous to comply with industrial safety standards, which is a great opportunity to learn a lot of engineering best practices. Working on these teams provides exposure to every part of the design, build, and deployment process and every project is a brand new challenge.
If you’re a multi-disciplinary robotics geek and you really don’t want to specialize, there are certainly ways to get into more traditional “robotics companies” as an entry-level engineer. Test or quality engineering is a common option—that’s how I got started. But if you like solution engineering, if you like being the one doing the fusion of sensors, software, and electromechanical systems, consider spending some time in the systems integration world to kick off your robotics career.