School Subjects: Mathematics, Physics, Technical/shop
Personal Skills: Mechanical/manipulative Technical
Work Environment: Primarily indoors; Primarily one location
Minimum Education Level: Associate’s degree
Salary Range: $ 16,500 to $36,000 to $70,000+
Certification or Licensing: Voluntary
Outlook: About as fast as the average
O*NET: 17-3023.02, 17-3024.00
Instrumentation technicians are skilled craftsworkers who do precision work & are involved in the field of measurement & control. Technicians inspect, test, repair, & adjust instruments that detect, measure, & record changes in industrial environments. They work with theoretical or analytical problems, helping engineers improve instrument & system performance.
The use of instruments as a means for people to monitor & control their environment & to guide their activities began with the sundial. As modern technology progresses, we still find ourselves in need of precise information that is
sometimes difficult to obtain.
For instance, with the advent of the steam engine in the 19th century, a
train operator had to know how much pressure was inside a boiler. A gauge was designed to measure this safely. The early 20th century saw the development of the internal combustion engine & powered flight. With these developments, engineers & technicians designed & made instruments such as speedometers, altimeters, & tachometers to provide vital data for the safe operation of these engines & auxiliary equipment.
Since World War I instrumentation technology has become a fast-growing field, responding to challenging needs as people explore space, research our oceans, perform biomedical studies, & advance nuclear technology. Today, instrumentation technology involves both measurement & control, & technicians are critical to their accurate operation. For instance, instrumentation technicians at nuclear reactors assure that the devices inside accurately measure heat, pres sure, & radiation, & their rates of change. If any of these factors is not at its specific level, then other instruments make the necessary adjustments. The plant operates safely & efficiently.
Instrumentation technicians work with complex instruments that detect, measure, & record changes in industrial environments. As part of their duties, these technicians perform tests, develop new instruments, & install, repair, inspect, & maintain the instruments. Examples of such instruments include altimeters, pressure gauges, speedometers, & radiation detection devices.
Some instrumentation technicians operate the laboratory equipment that produces or records the effects of certain conditions on the test instruments, such as vibration, stress, temperature, humidity, pressure, altitude, & acceleration. Other technicians sketch, build, & modify electronic & mechanical fixtures, instruments, & related apparatuses.
As part of their duties, technicians might verify the dimensions & functions of devices assembled by other technicians & craftsworkers, plan test programs, & direct technical personnel in carrying out these tests. Instrumentation technicians also perform mathematical calculations on instrument readings & test results so they can be used in graphs & written reports.
Instrumentation technicians work with three major categories of instruments: (1) pneumatic & e equipment, which includes temperature & flow transmitters & receivers & devices that start or are started by such things as pressure springs, diaphragms, & bellows; (2) hydraulic instrumentation, which includes hydraulic valves, hydraulic valve operators, & electrohydraulic equipment; & (3) electrical & electronic equipment, which includes electrical sensing elements & transducers, electronic recorders, electronic telemetering systems, & electronic computers.
In some industries, a technician might work on equipment from each category while in other industries, a technician might be responsible for only one specific type of task. The different levels of responsibility depend also on the instrumentation technician’s level of training & experience.
Instrumentation technicians may hold a variety of different positions. Mechanical instrumentation technicians, for example, handle routine mechanical functions. They check out equipment before operation, calibrate it during operation, rebuild it using standard replacement parts, mount interconnecting equipment from blueprints, & perform routine repairs using common hand tools. They must be able to read both instrumentation & electronic schematic diagrams. Instrumentation repair technicians determine the causes of malfunctions & make repairs. Such repairs usually involve individual pieces of equipment, as distinguished from entire systems. This job requires experience, primarily laboratory oriented, beyond that of mechanical instrumentation technicians.
Troubleshooting instrumentation technicians make adjustments to instruments & control systems, calibrate equipment, set up tests, diagnose malfunctions, & revise existing systems. Their work is per formed either on-site or at a workbench. Advanced training in mathematics, physics, & graphics is required for this level of work. Technicians who are involved in the design of instruments are instrumentation design technicians. They work under the supervision of a design engineer. Using information prepared by engineers, they build models & prototypes & prepare sketches, working drawings, & diagrams. These technicians also test out new system designs, order parts, & make mock-ups of new systems.
Technicians in certain industries have more specialized duties & responsibilities. Biomedical equipment technicians work with instruments used during medical procedures. They receive special training in the biomedical area in which their instruments are used.
Calibration technicians, also known as standards laboratory technicians, work in the electronics industry & in aerospace & aircraft manufacturing. As part of their inspection of systems & instruments, they measure parts for conformity to specifications, & they help develop calibration standards, devise formulas to solve problems in measurement & calibration, & write procedures & practical guides for other calibration technicians.
Electromechanical technicians work with automated mechanical equipment controlled by electronic sensing devices. They assist mechanical engineers in the design & development of such equipment, analyze test results, & write reports. The technician follows blueprints, operates metalworking machines, builds instrument housings, installs electrical equipment, & calibrates instruments & machinery. Technicians who specialize in the assembly of prototype instruments are known as development technicians. Fabrication technicians specialize in the assembly of production instruments.
Nuclear instrumentation technicians work with instruments at a nuclear power plant. These instruments control the various systems within the nuclear reactor, detect radiation, & sound alarms in case of equipment failure. Instrument sales technicians work for equipment manufacturing companies. They analyze customer needs, out line specifications for equipment cost & function, & sometimes do emergency troubleshooting.
Math & science courses, such as algebra, geometry, physics, & chemistry, are essential prerequisites to becoming an instrumentation technician. In addition, machine & electrical shop courses will help you become familiar with electrical, mechanical, & electronic technology. Classes in mechanical drawing & computer-aided drafting are also beneficial. Instrumentation technicians also need good writing & communication skills & should take English, composition, & speech classes.
The basic requirement for an entry-level job is completion of a two- year technical program or equivalent experience in a related field. Such equivalent experience may come from work in an electronics or manufacturing firm or any job that provides experience working with mechanical or electrical equipment.
Technical programs beyond high school can be found in community colleges as well as technical schools. Programs are offered in many different disciplines in addition to instrumentation technology. Programs may be in electronics or in electrical, mechanical, biomedical, or nuclear technology.
Most programs allow technicians to develop hands-on & laboratory skills as well as learn theory. Classes are likely to include instruction on electronic circuitry, computer science, mathematics, & physics. Courses in basic electronics, electrical theory, & graphics are also important. Technical writing is helpful as most technicians will prepare technical reports. Industrial economics, applied psychology, & plant management courses are helpful to those who plan to move into customer service or design.
Certification or Licensing
Instrumentation technicians who graduate from a recognized technical program may become certified by the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies, although this is usually not a required part of a job. Certification is available at various levels, each combining a written exam in one of over 30 specialty fields with a specified amount of job-related experience. Technicians are also eligible to become members of the International Society for Measurement & Control, which offers an accreditation. Instrumentation technicians who specialize in biomedical equipment repair can receive voluntary certification from the Board of Examiners for Biomedical Equipment Technicians. Membership in professional organizations is optional but is encouraged as a means of keeping abreast of advancing technology.
To be an instrumentation technician, you need mathematical & scientific aptitude & the patience to pursue complex questions methodically. A tolerance for following prescribed procedures is essential, especially when undertaking assignments requiring a very precise, unchanging system of problem solving. Successful instrumentation technicians are able to provide solutions quickly & accurately even in stressful situations.
Industries That Employ Instrumentation Technicians:
• biological sciences
• chemical sciences
• computer sciences
• environmental science
• food & beverage
• glass & ceramics
• machine tools
• marine sciences
• medical technology
• pulp & paper
• water & wastewater
As a way to test your abilities & learn more about calibration work try building small electronic equipment. Kits for building radios & other small appliances are available in some electronics shops. This will give you a basic understanding of electronic components & applications.
Some communities & schools also have clubs for people interested in electronics. They may offer classes that teach basic skills in construction, repair, & adjustment of electrical & electronic products. Model building, particularly in hard plastic & steel, will give you a good understanding of how to adapt & fit parts together. It may also help develop your hand skills if you want to work with precision instruments.
Visits to industrial laboratories, instrument shops, research laboratories, power installations, & manufacturing companies that rely on automated processes can expose you to the activities of instrumentation technicians. During such visits, you might be able to speak with technicians about their work or with managers about possible openings in their company. Also, you might look into getting a summer or part-time job as a helper on an industrial maintenance crew.
Employers of instrumentation technicians include oil refineries, chemical & industrial laboratories, electronics firms, aircraft & aero nautical manufacturers, & biomedical firms. Companies involved in space exploration, oceanographic research, & national defense systems also use instrumentation technicians. In addition, they work in such industries as automotives, food, metals, ceramics, pulp & paper, power, textiles, pharmaceuticals, mining, metals, & pollution control.
Many companies recruit students prior to their graduation. Chemical & medical research companies especially need maintenance & operations technicians & usually recruit at schools where training in these areas is strong. Similarly, many industries in search of design technicians recruit at technical institutes & community colleges where the program is likely to meet their needs.
Students may also get assistance in their job searches through their schools’ job placement services, or they may learn about openings through ads in the newspapers. Prospective employees can also apply directly to a company in which they are interested.
Entry-level technicians develop their skills by learning tasks on their employers’ equipment. Those with good academic records may, upon completion of an employer’s basic program, move to an advanced level in sales or another area where a general understanding of the field is more important than specific laboratory skills. Technicians who have developed proficiency in instrumentation may choose to move to a supervisory or specialized position that requires knowledge of a particular aspect of instrumentation.
Earnings for instrumentation technicians vary by industry, geographic region, educational background, experience, & level of responsibility. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual earnings of instrumentation technicians in the aero space industry were $48,600 in 2000. Electrical & electronic engineering technicians had median annual earnings of $42,130 in 2001. Electromechanical technicians earned a median of $38,150 in 2001, & mechanical engineering technicians earned $40,910. Repairers of electrical & electronics instruments for commercial & industrial equipment earned approximately $36,910 in 2000. Medical equipment repairers earned $35,340 in 2000. For all types of instrumentation technicians, salaries ranged from $16,500 to over $70,000.
Employee benefits vary, but can include paid vacations & holidays, sick leave, insurance benefits, 401-K plans, profit sharing, pension plans, & tuition assistance programs.
Working conditions vary widely for instrumentation technicians. An oil refinery plant job is as different from space mission instrumentation work as a nuclear reactor instrumentation job is different from work in the operating room of a hospital. All these jobs use similar principles, however, & instrumentation technicians can master new areas by applying what they have learned previously. For technicians who would like to travel, the petroleum industry, in particular, pro vides employment opportunities in foreign countries.
Instrumentation technicians’ tasks may range from the routine to the highly complex & challenging. A calm, well-controlled approach to work is essential. Calibration & adjustment require the dexterity & control of a watchmaker. Consequently, a person who is easily excited or impatient is not well suited to this kind of employment.
Employment opportunities for most instrumentation technicians will grow about as fast as the average over the next several years. Opportunities will be best for graduates of postsecondary technical training programs. As technology becomes more sophisticated, employers will continue to look for technicians who are skilled in new technology & require a minimum of additional job training.
Most developments in automated manufacturing techniques, including robotics & computer-controlled machinery, rely heavily on instrumentation devices. The emerging fields of air & water pollution control are other areas of growth. Scientists & technicians measure the amount of toxic substances in the air or test water with the use of instrumentation.
Oceanography, including the search for undersea deposits of oil & minerals, is another expanding field for instrumentation technology, as is medical diagnosis, including long-distance diagnosis by physicians through the use of sensors, computers, & telephone lines.
One important field of growth is the teaching profession. As demand rises for skilled technicians, qualified instructors with combined knowledge of theory & application will be needed. Opportunities already exist, not only in educational institutions but also in those industries that have internal training programs.
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