2021 Control Engineering Research Study

Control and automation engineers are crucial to hundreds of industries and applications from oil and gas to electronics manufacturing. This survey focuses on self-identified control industry professionals and explores which industries they work in, their tasks and what tools they need. You’ll learn about their purchasing habits, how they consume information related to their work, and the challenges they face every day.

Kate Smith
All About Circuits

World Regions

This data shows us that Career Pro engineers are more likely than Next Gens to work with the North American and European markets. Next Gens are instead more likely to be represented by a small margin in markets like Africa, India, and Japan, Korea, or Taiwan. This gives us an indication that previous generations of engineers have been more concentrated in or focused on North America and Europe in a way that future generations won’t be.

You’ll also note that engineers are significantly more likely to work with the geographical regions from which they hail.

Which geographical markets are your projects intended for?

(Multiple responses)

End Products Worked On

The number one end product respondents reported working with was, unsurprisingly, PLCs/PACs. The next two runners up were sensors/sensing systems and HMIs, both of which are staples in many manufacturing and processing facilities for gathering and interpreting data.

The spectrum spans many applications, but we do see a few interesting things. AI and machine learning are important for relatively few engineers, especially when considering how much of the industry’s marketing has been focused on promoting AI in automation applications.

Which end products, services, or applications do you primarily work with in your job?

(Multiple responses)

Tools & Software

The most common software chosen by respondents was Excel, despite the influx of large software environments in the market. This may be due to familiarity with Excel as a program or its availability in a typical workplace. Another consideration is its inherent flexibility, where large-scale software suites are often tailored to specific industries or tasks. This same discussion also applies to PowerPoint, Google Docs, and Libre/OpenOffice.

Note also the popularity of control system monitoring tools, which are essential for engineers who are responsible for system maintenance and efficiency.

Which of the following tools or software programs do you use?

(Multiple responses)

Next Gen


Career Pro

A Career Pro is a seasoned engineer with 6 or more years of engineering experience. These engineers represent who leads in the industry today. A Next Gen is either a young engineer with 5 or fewer years of experience or a student pursuing a CE degree. These engineers represent where the industry is going next.

Let’s see how they compare.


Career Pro respondents are, on average, around 50 years old, which puts them close to retirement age. This situation is sometimes called the “silver tsunami” wherein a large number of experienced engineers may be exiting the job market and taking their 20 years of experience with them.

We see that 26% of Next Gens report being a primary decision maker in purchase decisions in their job, a higher number than perhaps could be expected, given their average of 3 years of experience. This tells us that Next Gen engineers are more important to the decision making process than they’re sometimes credited with.

As may be expected, given the disparate amount of experience between the two demographics, Next Gen engineers report being Engineers, Technicians, Specialists, and Interns more often than do Career Pros. Career Pros are more likely to hold positions of authority, such as Senior Engineers, Managers, and Executives.

Which role do you serve in your company?

When asked which industries respondents work in, clear generational gaps emerged. While there was comparable representation across several industries, such as electronics, building automation, cement, and agriculture, Career Pros were dominant in most other industries. In particular, significantly more Career Pros reported working in several industries than Next Gen respondents, especially in familiar industry juggernauts like oil and gas/petrochemical, public utilities, and chemical.

Next Gens were more represented in only a few industries: military/aerospace, warehousing, and “other.” This may be related to the rise in private sector aerospace companies and large distribution centers that rely on warehouses, all of which need scores of control engineers.

In which industries do you work?

(Multiple responses)

Rates of employment at different types of companies were comparable between the generations. Notable here is the prominent number of engineers from both demographics that report working for “end user” companies, or those that produce end products that range wildly from food to airplane parts to pencils to smartphones. This is a reasonable split because OEM/machine producers, system integrators, and consulting companies may serve those end user companies.

What kind of company do you work for?

(Multiple responses)

Professional Activities

We asked respondents to tell us what they spend most of their time on in terms of tasks. While there were comparable results between generational demographics, there are a few points to note. For one thing, Career Pro engineers are significantly more likely to be responsible for control system design than Next Gens.

On which activities do you spend most of your time, professionally?

(Multiple responses)

Most Pressing Challenges

Identifying challenges control engineers face can oftentimes tell us which solutions they’re looking for. Staying on schedule was the number one response in this year’s data, followed by staying on budget. These two concerns are at the top of the list year over year, though they sometimes trade between positions #1 and #2.

This year, Career Pros were more likely to report that they needed more skilled staff. They were also more likely to report that they found it challenging to keep up with the latest tech. Next Gens, on the other hand, reported that they struggled with quality control, finding opportunities for career advancement, and finding tools that met their project requirements.

What are the most pressing challenges you face in your current work?

(Multiple responses)

Digital Transformation

The term “digital transformation” is often used to indicate the shift from legacy systems to those that utilize more advanced or complex technologies, often those that utilize software for data management and analysis.

The top response was that most respondents’ companies were adopting predictive maintenance, reported most by Career Pros. The second response was the adoption of machine learning and AI, which can be implemented in many digital transformation technologies to improve efficiencies.

Next Gens notably reported more adoption of digital twinning, the use of simulated models of machines, systems, or even entire facilities to enable better predictive maintenance and equipment upgrades.

Which digital transformation technologies is your company adopting?

(Multiple responses)

Open Source

Benefits of open source solutions are often cited as faster patches to address problems, more collaboration for creative ideas, greater flexibility, and lower costs. Drawbacks include concerns about security, intellectual property, lack of official support channels, and sometimes issues with compatibility.

Nearly half of control engineers reported that they use open source solutions and 30% said their decision would depend on the specific situation. This information tells us that open source solution benefits outweigh the risks for many engineers.

Do you use open source solutions in your projects?

Sources of Info Used the Most

The number one response for both generational demographics was search engines. The second most relied-upon source of information was manufacturer websites, followed by engineering forums and communities where peers provide feedback and solutions amongst themselves.

The largest generational difference here is the reliance on social media as a source of information.

Next Gen engineers also prefer news sites and maker blogs/communities more, whereas Career Pros are notably more likely to trust system integrators. This may represent a shift towards crowdsourced resources as opposed to individual expert partners.

Which of the following sources of information do you utilize most during the design process?

(Multiple responses)

Types of Info Relied On

The number one response across the board was datasheets/specification sheets, which is both understandable and consistent with engineers’ general reliance on hard numbers for making design decisions. User manuals were a decently close second, though both were selected more consistently by Career Pro respondents than by Next Gens.

Next Gen engineers expressed notably more preference for textbooks, videos, and online design tools compared to Career Pros. This suggests that investment in these content types may be a sound strategy as these engineers mature and make more purchasing decisions over time.

Which types of information do you rely on most during the design process?

(Multiple responses)

Desired Info

As demonstrated in the data about preferred types of information, video content is particularly popular among Next Gen respondents. This trend is supported by what kinds of content they would request to see produced more often, where video tutorials and walkthroughs are the number one choice for Next Gens and for Career Pros, as well.

Generational differences largely demonstrated that Next Gen engineers are hungry for a wide range of content formats, including coverage of news, trend analyses, coverage of historical tech, interviews, product roundups, and opinion pieces. While Career Pros also expressed some interest in these disparate content types, Next Gens were significantly more likely to actively request them.

What kinds of informational content would you like to see more of?

(Multiple responses)

Purchasing Decisions

As referenced in our data earlier, one of the major differences between Career Pro and Next Gen engineers is their likelihood to report themselves as decision makers. This is evidenced by the elevated percentage of Career Pros who said they were either the primary decision maker or part of a team that makes these decisions. Next Gens were conversely more likely to report that their immediate supervisor was ultimately responsible for purchase decisions.

Note that, compared to last year, more Career Pros reported that their team makes decisions together and more Next Gens reported that their immediate supervisor was solely responsible for those decisions. This may be a reflection of a trend towards more team decisions overall, but more year-over-year data will help clarify this point in future surveys.

Who makes purchasing decisions on the products you design?

Purchasing Parts

When it comes to actively purchasing parts, we see an extension of the data we just discussed regarding decision making. Next Gens were significantly more likely to report that they were not involved in parts purchasing. Comparable numbers of Next Gen and Career Pro respondents reported submitting purchase requests to their company’s procurement team.

Career Pros reported that their companies rely on distributor websites, manufacturer websites, distributor reps, and manufacturer reps to make purchases. This emphasizes the importance of both effective website design and the availability of support staff to enable good purchasing experiences.

What are your company’s preferred methods for purchasing parts?

(Multiple responses)


When asked which top distributors respondents used to acquire products, supplies, and equipment, respondents of both generational demographics favored local vendors. Large distributors Digi-Key and Mouser were both chosen consistently in positions #2 and #4 respectively. #3 was buying directly from brands, a common response as respondents forewent distributors in favor of purchasing directly from manufacturers.

If you compare these results to those collected in 2020, we see that local vendors jumped from a response that was barely represented to the number one result in 2021. This could be due to several factors, but a major influence may be the disruption of the global supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein local vendors were likely more reliable than depending on long-range shipping routes.

From which distributors do you purchase your products/supplies/equipment the most?

(Multiple responses)


Control engineer respondents reported that they use many brands when sourcing products, supplies, and equipment in their work. The top brands selected included familiar industry juggernauts: ABB, Siemens Industry, and Schneider Electric.
Note that many engineers selected Allen-Bradley, despite that they were acquired by Rockwell in 1985. This shows a strong attachment to the Allen-Bradley brand as separate from Rockwell, which was also listed, but chosen by fewer respondents.

Career Pro engineers were more heavily represented across nearly all brands. This may mean Career Pros work with a wider spectrum of brands in their work compared to Next Gens. The sole brand that had more Next Gen representation was Autodesk, which could imply an increased use of simulation tools over time.

From which brands do you intend to use products/supplies/equipment in your designs?

(Multiple responses)


An interesting trend emerged when we asked respondents to tell us which websites they frequented the most. Where Career Pros tended to choose the same top websites consistently, Next Gens were more likely to visit multiple sites a near equal amount.

Top results for both demographics Control Automation (#1), Control Engineering (#2), and Automation.com (#3).

Which sites/communities/publications do you frequently visit?

(Multiple responses)

Trusted Publications

We found that the top reported publication that respondents trust is Control Automation for both Career Pros and Next Gens. The next most popular for both demographics was Control Engineering. One of the only publications that had more Next Gen respondents than Career Pros was Control Design, which ranked seventh overall.

All respondents identified topics relevant to their work as being their number one reason for liking their favorite publication. Also important were how interesting the topics were to them and how much they trusted that publication’s expertise. Notably, more Next Gen engineers cared about the publication’s reputation and the number of new articles posted each day than Career Pro respondents.

Can’t Get Enough Data?

The data presented here is only the tip of the IDE-berg. If you are interested in more data, particular insights, or would just like to use our data in your marketing materials, please reach out to us. We’re happy to share!

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