Karl Gerety | PLCs, HMIs, & Making Hardware Move

 In Being an Engineer Podcast

Who is Karl Gerety?

Karl Gerety started his career as a field service technician. Thanks to his budding skill within the controls realm, he quickly transferred into the role of controls engineer. For the past 20 years, Karl has honed his skill and is now Director of Engineering at Machine Solutions where he leads an entire group of controls engineers.


controls, engineer, equipment, software, companies, plcs, application, plc, programming, people, semiconductor industry, design, industry, basics, legos, cheap labor, piece, hmi, wafers, medical devices
Aaron Moncur, Karl Gerety

Aaron Moncur 00:13
Welcome to the being an engineer podcast. Our guest today is Karl Gerety, who is the Director of Engineering and machine solutions in Flagstaff, Arizona. A turnkey equipment manufacturer. Karl’s background is in controls and systems engineering and including PLC and HMI software. Karl, welcome to the show.

Karl Gerety 00:35
Thanks. Glad to be here.

Aaron Moncur 00:37
I’m gonna start off with a very softball question for you. Not everyone listening to this will be familiar with controls engineering or systems engineering. So I mentioned that you’re an expert in PLC and HMI software, what do PLC and HMI stands for? And what are these tools? How are they used?

Karl Gerety 01:01
Sure, so PLC is a programmable logic controller takes inputs and outputs from sensors, turns on valves motors, a variety of things, applications can be done with it analog signals. And it’s used to be the brains of a piece of equipment. And then the HMI is the human machine interface, which would be programmed with buttons on a touchscreen type thing to allow the operator to interact with the equipment in the recipe values manually control just allows the operator the interface into the equipment.

Aaron Moncur 01:42
Perfect. Thank you. And another softball question or maybe not? Well, we’ll let you decide what is a controls engineer.

Karl Gerety 01:53
So I think the definition can vary a little bit. At our facility a controls engineer does programming on the PLC is the HMI and does the electrical design and schematics for our equipment. But in some places a controls engineer might be just doing the PLC or HMI software part of it, it just depends on the company. But typically it’s it’s doing all of those things because as a controls engineer, you need to know the system, electrical and hardware and software.

Aaron Moncur 02:32
Can you share a few things that you have controlled in the past? I mean, as a controls engineer, you’re controlling things What what are you controlling?

Karl Gerety 02:41
So like machine solutions, our equipment is used in manufacturing of stents and catheters and medical industry. So we have like a stent gets crimped on to a balloon assembly and our equipment has what we started out doing as a what’s called a crimp head. It’s a segmental design of elements that is actuated by a motor or it could be pneumatically actuated. So that is what we are controlling. So we’re writing the software. We have a mechanical team as well doing the hardware. And then you know, the controls team is writing the software to create an interface for the operator to crimp that stent onto that balloon assembly.

Aaron Moncur 03:31
Okay, so you’ve had both the title controls engineer and systems engineer, what what’s the difference between the two?

Karl Gerety 03:37
Ah, there’s they’re really close. I mean, the system engineer is typically looking at the system as a whole. You know, like I said, doing the electrical, the software design, programming. And there’s a lot of overlap, I’d say between a controls engineer and a systems engineer.

Aaron Moncur 03:56
Okay, kind of two different names for mostly the same role, then. I believe so yeah. Yeah. All right, going back in time a bit. Can you remember any experiences that you had in let’s call it your formative years that convinced you that controls and systems engineering, this is the right career path for you?

Karl Gerety 04:19
Sure. i So I’ve started out in field service, doing electronics, of course, but doing field service for company and started learning more controls and software in school and you know, on the job, and I actually started thinking of going into it. But as I worked more in the software, I realized this is where you know that this is where my talent was, and this is where I enjoyed doing the work. So for me personally, that’s kind of how I, you know, some of the controls part was on the job, because a lot of colleges don’t really teach PLC He’s, you know, when I was doing it, most of the people in that area learned PLCs on the job.

Aaron Moncur 05:10
Interesting. And is that that was the experience for you as well. You learned the PLC programming on the job. Can you think of? I mean, what were some of your early projects where you started programming, the PLC and you saw some hardware moving, and you thought, wow, this is so cool. This is this is what I want to do. Forget about it. It doesn’t have any of the cool mechanical stuff. This is where I want to be.

Karl Gerety 05:36
Right? Yeah, I think it was, I mean, I worked I worked at companies in the Valley in the semiconductor industry. And we did most of the companies, I worked for good equipment for supplying chemicals to the point of use equipment in this fab. And for, you know, main manufacturing wafers. And, you know, I think at first it was just working on that equipment. I’m a hands on person. So I liked working on the equipment, I saw the controls part of it. And I thought, you know, that was pretty interesting. And then I got a job writing the software, because I, you know, saw the interest in it. And yeah, it was, to me, it’s like playing with, or getting to play with Legos in a way you get to program it. And then you get to see that program come to life and do you know, move things. I’ve worked on robotic applications where you get to see a robotic arm, pick something up. And it’s just, it’s fun. It’s almost like you get to play with toys.

Aaron Moncur 06:36
I love that. You mentioned Legos. I swear, every person who has been on the show has mentioned Legos in some form or another. So that’s really that’s just par for the Oh, yeah, yeah, everyone talks about Legos, I love it. We should go into business like being a distributor of Legos or something on this show. You went from being kind of a field service technician and then into controls. How did you how did you make that transition? I mean, you didn’t have experience doing PLCs and controls, how did you convince your employer to take you on as a new controls engineer.

Karl Gerety 07:13
So at the company, I was working at these field service technicians, were required to learn some of the PLC in order to help troubleshoot in the field. So we were trained by the Controls group or the Software Group on, you know, how to interact with the PLC, how to look at the code, how to troubleshoot it, so that we could be the eyes and ears of the of that group in the field, and assist them with troubleshooting mainly, but I got it, you know, I kind of picked it up quickly. And they started allowing me to make small changes in the code, you know, if it was just quick, easy things, I was able to make those without having to go back to the corporate software team, I was able to make those. And then as I learned that, and I got better, I actually went to another company, and applied as a software engineer. And they hired me knowing I didn’t have a ton of experience, but I, you know, knew enough and could demonstrate that I was able to do it. And so that’s, you know, where I went from there.

Aaron Moncur 08:22
That must have been a happy day for you. It was,

Karl Gerety 08:24
it was interesting. Yep. That’s fine.

Aaron Moncur 08:29
Okay, well, what? Let’s say that you’re speaking to a company who is just starting to get their, their feet wet in the control space? Where do you start? You know, what are some of the popular development platforms? And why would one choose one over the other? What are some practical ways one can start learning controls.

Karl Gerety 08:51
So a lot of the companies out there, offer their software for free. So if like if you if you were wanting to start doing it, we use Bekoff control systems at machine solutions is one of our big platforms. And they offer their software for free, you can download it from their website and start using it. And it’s actually if you know, other programming languages, like C sharp or something, you can integrate them into their software. So you can download their software, start playing with it, start looking at how it interacts, and you can simulate it on your computer. So you can run it right there and see what different functions do right there. Other companies hardware, without the hardware, yep. You can simulate the hardware even motion control. So it’s, it’s pretty nice. But you know, I don’t think there’s one system out there that is the best I think each brand Allen Bradley, GE, Siemens, they all have their different things that they’re good at different applications, but I feel like they’re all really good. It just depends on what You’re using it for you might, you know, one might have a little advantage over another based on some technology they have or features that they offer?

Aaron Moncur 10:09
Are there areas where one of them is a clear winner over the other? You mentioned, you know, different technologies, what you’re using it for? Are there I don’t know, industries or particular applications where Oh, for sure, go with Alan Bradley, or definitely, you need to use Siemens, or for this kind of work, it’s back up all the way.

Karl Gerety 10:30
Yeah, I feel like there, there’s some times are like Alan Bradley and Siemens, the two big, big guys on the block, they are very good for large automation, like automotive applications large, I feel like very large applications are really good. But when you get into, like our equipment and machine solutions is pretty small, it’s tabletop size, but we have a lot of motion, technology, or control in our systems. And we try to cram as much stuff in a small footprint. So the Bekoff, for us, it’s a PC based us control system, and their IO modules and their motion control is kind of small. And then the capability of their motion control for our application is very good. So that’s, that’s why we went with that application. But, you know, I think that the majority of PLCs out there can do a lot of the same things.

Aaron Moncur 11:25
That makes a lot of sense. One thing I was curious about, have you seen the introduction, or maybe further establishment of mobile apps in the industrial control space?

Karl Gerety 11:39
I haven’t seen it applied really, but I’ve heard of it. And I’ve seen demos of it. We did one, we did do one application with a large piece of equipment where we used a tablet PC as a maintenance interface. But it wasn’t a mobile device, like an iPhone or a, you know, Android type phone. But what we did could have probably been done on one of those devices over wireless, our particular customer did not want us to go wireless at the time, they wanted us to have a tethered to the equipment. But I could see it easily being used in, in almost any industry.

Aaron Moncur 12:21
What, what are some benefits of having mobile? And why do you think that they aren’t being used? Very, very often in industry right now.

Karl Gerety 12:34
I feel like they’re not using the industry just because of I feel like IT departments and those guys are so scared of security things, that they are fearful for things like that. And that’s why that one customer wouldn’t let us use the wireless, because the IT department did not want them to have a wireless device. There even though, you know, I guess they felt there were security risks with it. And, you know, in some cases, it depends on what that device is doing. Right? If it’s controlling something, you don’t want to have people that are away from the equipment potentially being able to control something on the equipment. But then if it’s just monitoring and giving them status update, you know, I don’t see why companies aren’t adopting it more, especially with IoT and that stuff these days. I don’t see why companies aren’t. But I do know that a lot of the companies we deal with are afraid because of security issues.

Aaron Moncur 13:35
That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. When you mentioned not, it not being wise for someone to be remote and you know, controlling some kind of motion. I had this picture of, you know, controls engineer sitting back on his lazy boy and his house, especially during COVID-19. Right, like moving cars through the plant and workers running what’s going on what’s happening. Exactly. All right. Well, you’ve worked in a variety of industries, including chemical delivery semiconductor, and now medical devices. Has the controls environment different much between these different industries? Or is the work you know, more or less the same? Regardless of the industry?

Karl Gerety 14:20
I’d say it’s more or less the same, regardless of the industry. Like the semiconductor industry is very automated. They, you know, don’t want people interacting with the wafers for many reasons. And I thought the medical industry would be kind of like that with the medical devices, but it’s actually not as automated as semiconductor industry. But but as a being a controls engineer in the industry. Job wise, I feel like it’s, it’s very similar.

Aaron Moncur 14:51
Okay, what do you suppose medical is not as automated and is it moving in that direction?

Karl Gerety 14:57
It’s slowly moving in that direction, but I A lot of companies still are getting cheap labor to manufacture manufacturing floor. So that I think is part of the reason it’s not as automated because you can get labor. And then the devices themselves haven’t been designed to be easily automated, I guess also. So I think that’s a factor in it as well, and why it hasn’t been adopted as much as like the semiconductor industry.

Aaron Moncur 15:28
That’s an interesting point. I wonder with the trade wars that are going on right now, we’re gonna see more automation due to a lack of cheap labor or, I mean, I guess a lot of the labor is still here in the US domestically anyway, for for medical devices, but but not all of it.

Karl Gerety 15:45
Right. I mean, there’s China has, you know, obviously cheap labor, Mexico, Costa Rica, some there’s still some countries that companies want to put their factories in to get some of that labor.

Aaron Moncur 15:59
Yeah. All right, I’m gonna take a 22nd break here. And just remind our listeners that the being an engineer podcast is powered by pipeline design and engineering, where we work with predominantly medical device engineering teams who need turnkey, custom test fixtures or automated equipment to assemble, inspect, characterize or perform verification or validation testing other devices, and you can find us at test fixture design.com. Karl, do you find that most controls engineers can also do mechanical design? Or are the two skill sets mutually exclusive?

Karl Gerety 16:42
From what I’ve seen there? I’d say they’re mutually exclusive. But I have encountered in my years of engineers, and they were titled, like mechatronic engineers, that knew both the mechanical side and the electrical man, and maybe some of the software side as well.

Aaron Moncur 17:04
Is that a holy grail of engineer right there? They can do both?

Karl Gerety 17:07
It’s it’s a lot more rare than, than one or the other? That’s for sure.

Aaron Moncur 17:12
Yeah. What I mean, you’re a leader over a controls group. What are some of the key attributes or skill sets that you look for when you know, recruiting, bringing on a new hire? And if someone were to have both of those skill sets, the control side and the mechanical designs side? Would that be a clear, you know, winning benefit from from your perspective?

Karl Gerety 17:38
I’m not necessarily I mean, yeah, it would bring a lot, definitely to the table. Because of that, we do both mechanical design and electrical software, we have as you know, a dedicated mechanical team and then a dedicated controls team. So it would, we would definitely consider it. What we look for are people who we, you know, can troubleshoot, because as you write, because we have to write the software. And then when it doesn’t work, we also have to troubleshoot why that doesn’t work. We don’t have a separate group that’s, you know, like just writing software, and then just testing. So we look for troubleshooting capabilities, you know, obviously, programming capabilities do you know, electrical and software, which, you know, a lot of the college today, if you just went for computer science, you might know the computer science and software side of it. But most of those people, I wouldn’t, I shouldn’t say most, but some of those people don’t know the electrical side of it. So we look for for both of those sides. You know, some of the, like NAU here in northern Arizona, they offer classes in electrical engineering with software as well. So that’s what we’re looking for is someone that’s done education that way.

Aaron Moncur 19:01
Okay. Okay. And between the the mechanical group, Mechanical Design Group, the Controls group, is there. Is there much of a language barrier, so to speak, or is it pretty easy for those two groups to communicate with each other?

Karl Gerety 19:15
It’s pretty easy. I feel for them to communicate with each other.

Aaron Moncur 19:20
Yeah. Okay. Can you can you share? What are some vendors that you really like not like, you know, proprietary strategic partner vendors or anything like that, but I always use mcmaster carr as a good example. Everyone knows them. Everyone loves them. Are there a few vendors that you’ve used in your career that you feel like are just really great providers and might be helpful or valuable for other engineers listening to this to know about?

Karl Gerety 19:49
Like, there’s one of the Phoenix con sorry, not Phoenix Contact SMC valve companies. There’s a company named Flo trollocs. That’s really been good. They’re working with us. And, you know, he’s helped us with applications where we say, Hey, this is the need, we have, bring it to them. And they’re usually pretty good about providing a solution to that. And other other vendors, we’ve used, like MSI tech, that has provided us with solutions, both on the, you know, those are more vendors that we would go to for a variety of components, I would say. So we say, hey, we need this. And they give us a bunch of choices of different brands, or, you know, different types of devices that might work for our application.

Aaron Moncur 20:41
And MSI tech, you probably just use them because the initials of the company are the same as yours. Exactly. That’s the sole criteria. All right. What what are some habits that you’ve developed over the years that have proven useful to you could be engineering related or personal related, but what are some of the habits or routines that you find yourself going through that you’ve kept up with over the years, because they’re, they’re just really beneficial?

Karl Gerety 21:12
I think for me, one of the things that, like I focus on and some people give me a hard time, you know, over as when I’m writing code is just trying to keep it simple. Don’t try to overcomplicate it, just keep it simple, write the face, start with the basics, get that done, and then start adding the more complicated things as you go. Don’t try to take on, you know, everything all at once. Just just start simple. And that’s something I’ve done, you know, I’ll look at someone else’s code sometimes. And this is where they gave me a hard time because I’m like, you could have done that in like, five lines of code, not 20. So I tried to look at some things in a very simplistic way, and just start with the basics.

Aaron Moncur 21:58
But what about what it’s a really technically challenging problem? How do you how do you write something really simple and basic for an application that is truly demanding and complicated?

Karl Gerety 22:10
Again, I start with this simple stuff, first, get that out of the way, and then start moving towards the more complicated stuff. And I’m one of those people that likes to draw pictures. So I’ll have to, you know, write stuff out on a piece of paper, draw pictures of what it’s going to do, and then start working towards, you know, that solution, but I also, you know, like to reach out to my peers, the other people I’m working with and bounce ideas off them, you know, because I feel like, when we don’t do that we’re limiting ourselves in what we can do and what we can apply to that application.

Aaron Moncur 22:47
Yeah, what does the code look like? I mean, when you’re programming industrial automation, is the code similar to I don’t know what you might see for programming firmware in a microcontroller? Or, you know, some kind of web app? Or is the code very different when it comes to industrial automation?

Karl Gerety 23:07
No, it’s I would say it’s very similar. And that’s one of the things that, like colleges don’t teach PLC programming, typically, you’ll find some colleges dabble in it, or, or show people a little bit of it. But the lot of people we interview, haven’t even heard of a PLC yet. But the basics are the same, of course of any programming language. And then the interface is going to be different based on the brand of PLC that you buy. But there’s there are electrical, or IEC standards around and software now that almost all companies can conform to. So some sections of the code may be very similar to you know, Visual Basic, or web programming, like Java or something in some ways. So I’d say the basics are the same. But then the PLCs do have some of the languages that are more visual and people that are might be programming in other languages would say, that doesn’t make sense. It makes sense if you’re an electrical engineer, and that’s how they designed it initially. So if you’re more of a computer science person, some of it you might look at and shake your head or scratch your head a little of what’s going on.

Aaron Moncur 24:29
Yeah, thank you for summarizing that. Can you share stories of either a major success or a major fail or both if both come to mind, and what you and all of us can learn from them?

Karl Gerety 24:46
Well, one, I’d say a funny fail that we had one time with a company I was working with, we were an integrator, and we took on a project that was a semiconductor based equipment But I had a gantry system that picked up the wafers and then dip them into different baths within the piece of equipment to do chemical etching, or whatever those different baths were filled with. And then we but we mocked the whole thing up at our facility, we had basically just pulled out tables with cardboard on them that were the different bands that this gantry would drop into. And we had the customer out for demonstration. And the gantry went down, and it dropped the first carrier into the first you know, simulated bath. And then it did not come up like it was supposed to, and it just went through and wiped out every other card block bath. And

Aaron Moncur 25:46
no, that was on the customer right there

Karl Gerety 25:50
with the customer at there.

Aaron Moncur 25:55
Was the customer understanding about this is a prototype?

Karl Gerety 25:58
They were Yeah. So they were they were a little surprised, of course, but they, they understood. And luckily, it was not the actual machine. It was the prototype. And that’s one of the things you know, I think I’ve learned that, you know, we try to do with our engineering team is, is prototype things, let’s figure stuff out off the machine, especially really, very technical or more risky things, let’s prototype some of that. Figured out off the equipment, then, you know, integrated into the equipment so that we aren’t putting it all together and then realizing that we have to go back to the drawing board because we didn’t understand it.

Aaron Moncur 26:43
Yeah, that’s great. Any other stories that come to mind that you care to share?

Karl Gerety 26:50
I think that’s that was one of the funniest ones. Of course, it’s just take. Yeah. But you know, I have Okay, broken wafers. Of course, in semiconductor when you have something that, again, either didn’t get programmed, right, or whatever, that you know, wafer pieces go flying everywhere.

Aaron Moncur 27:08
That sounds like it could be dangerous.

Karl Gerety 27:10
We have

Aaron Moncur 27:15
what? What would today’s you tell yourself back when you were brand new engineer, brand new controls engineer that you wish you had known back then?

Karl Gerety 27:25
I’m not sure if there’s anything specific. I do know. And I see this in younger engineers often. And I know I did. It was when I was approached on something I programmed with somebody who said, hey, it doesn’t work. I usually would argue with them. No, it’s got to be something else. It’s got to be a mechanical issue. It’s got to be something’s not wired. Right? You know, and I kind of felt like, I didn’t make the mistake in my software, you know, and was proven that I did make mistakes, you know, over a few times, and it took me learning that to say, Okay, I’m not gonna say that anymore. I’m gonna, I’m gonna look at what, what they’re talking about. And then, and then tell them that they’re wrong or wrong.

Aaron Moncur 28:14
Yeah, some humility comes with experience for sure. Exactly. Yeah. Okay. What are what are some of the challenges that you face at work each day? A couple of the big ones?

Karl Gerety 28:26
Our timelines is probably one, I’m sure everybody, you know, can and then we do a lot of custom stuff. So sometimes, you know, the challenges we take on this application. And then realize, oh, this was a little tougher than we expected. And you know, that, of course, timelines then shift when we, when we do that. But I’d say some timelines are always one of the bigger challenges and I’d say, you know, even programming is, it isn’t, because I’d say it’s an exact science, but it’s not. There’s every engineer has a different style to program of how they program. And it’s almost like an art form in some cases. So we try to create standards, of course, to minimize, you know, recreating the wheel every time we try to do something.

Aaron Moncur 29:24
Yeah. Any strategies that you’ve found over the years to deal with timelines and schedules, making sure things get done on time?

Karl Gerety 29:33
I’d say prototyping is one of the bigger things that we that has made us successful. It’s just, you know, looking at those very critical parts of of design, taking on those first and looking at them and then building around that which I think that’s helped us be more successful with with more complicated designs.

Aaron Moncur 30:00
Yeah, okay. Well, Karl, what what are some of your hobbies? What do you do outside of work when you’re not doing controlled stuff? And building Legos is a perfectly acceptable answer.

Karl Gerety 30:11
Working on old cars and mountain biking, probably to bigger ones.

Aaron Moncur 30:16
There are some nice mountain bike trails from what I hear up in Flagstaff.

Karl Gerety 30:20
Yep. And it’s nice all year round. So, you know, well, I shouldn’t say I want to get around because we get the snow. So we can’t ride that. Yeah. You know, once the snow stops, the weather’s pretty nice. And yeah, there’s a lot of trails up here.

Aaron Moncur 30:34
Beautiful, beautiful. Well, Karl, how can people get a hold of you? Whether it’s, you know, personally, or through the company? What’s the best way to for people to reach out?

Karl Gerety 30:46
Um, yeah, I mean, if they wanted to contact machine solutions, of course, you can look us up. Machinesolutions.com. If they wanted to contact me personally, I can give you my personal email address.

Aaron Moncur 30:58
Okay. Yeah. And you’re on LinkedIn as well, I believe, right.

Karl Gerety 31:02
Correct. Yep. So yeah, they absolutely. reach me through that. Yeah.

Aaron Moncur 31:06
Great. Great. Well, Karl, thank you so much for for spending your time with us today. It’s been really interested in hearing your perspective and some of your stories about controls engineering, you actually the first controls engineer that we’ve had on the show. So this has been really fun. Thank you.

Karl Gerety 31:22
Cool. Yeah. Glad to be be on here. It’s been fun. Yeah.

Aaron Moncur 31:26
All right. Well, that’s all we have for this time. Tune in next time for the next episode of being an engineer. I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of pipeline design, and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please leave us a positive review. It really helps other people find the show. To learn how your engineering team can leverage our team’s expertise in developing turnkey custom test fixtures, automated equipment and product design, visit us at testfixturedesign.com Thanks for listening

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