From Autos to Automation
What made you choose engineering?
We’ve all heard the age-old phrase about choosing a job you love and never having to work a day in your life. One of the things that attracted me to mechanical engineering was my interest in automobiles. As a teenager, I participated in circle-track racing, off-roading and auto shows. I put that interest to work by repairing cars, starting with my old pickup truck. I knew the parts were heat-treated, but was unfamiliar with how that process happened. Naturally, my inner engineer became curious. Choosing a hands-on job was my “speed,” if you will.
Why heat treating and the industrial furnace industry?
I don’t think many enter the furnace industry on purpose. This industry chose me. After an unintentional introduction to heat-treated parts through my auto hobby, I considered a career in engineering. In 2008, I earned a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Northern Illinois University, not knowing exactly what type of company I would work for.
During school, my class had the opportunity to visit some large plants. I was impressed with the size and function of the machines we saw. The automation and intricate production lines fascinated me. I began working for a tool-and-die company and realized how diverse the heat-treating field really is; the breadth of materials, processes and operations says it all. I heard of Ipsen and knew it was close to home, so I researched the company. Ipsen has held a strong global presence for a long time, and the story of how the company formed intrigued me. Before I knew it, I was Ipsen’s newest engineer.
What things do you find most interesting about the work you do?
At the end of the day, engineers just want to problem-solve. I appreciate the balance between doing hands-on mechanical work, while also establishing a professional career in the office. I really enjoy our focus on innovation and the freedom we have on some special projects. Often our sales team will bring us a concept that goes beyond the capabilities of standard equipment. We collaborate to identify the best solution, going into uncharted territory. The process is rewarding, and it enables us to be continual learners.
Technology is driving change. What are some of the new technologies you are working on?
Augmented reality is beginning to be incorporated into servicing the furnace and for training and troubleshooting purposes. The furnace can signal users (even via smartphone) about issues with the systems – pumping, heating and cooling. Problems can be remedied during a long cycle, which would improve productivity by saving the cycle and parts.
As computers become “smarter,” you can train them to give you the information you are looking for. They will easily be able to provide feedback on the health of the furnace system by analyzing the process data. All of this accumulated data can be referenced at a later time to verify process (cycle) conformity to customers. We call our predictive maintenance software platform PdMetrics®.
We are moving toward digital instrumentation for temperature and pressure control. These components send and receive discreet signals routed through the PLC using Ethernet IP. Compared to analog, this reduces signaling errors and can often be done at a reduced cost to our customers. These technology tools are useful for an industry that is more tech-savvy each day. Rather than climbing around the furnace checking gauges and meters, furnace operators and maintenance personnel can view this data through the Internet of Things from a remote location.
What can manufacturing businesses like Ipsen do to recruit and keep technical engineers and service workers?
Collaboration and networking are important in this industry because it’s a relatively small, tight-knit group. It would be great if grade-school kids, especially students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, could check out local companies like Ipsen to get early exposure. This part of the country is filled with a variety of manufacturers, and if we could introduce STEM students to the global opportunities that are close to home, we could more effectively attract and keep talented people.
I have also noticed there is a generational gap in today’s workforce. Young workers generally have a different perspective than those closer to retirement. They want to find a niche – not fill a role. I’d suggest that companies evaluate each person’s skills to find the best role for them within the company. Ipsen does a great job at that.
More about Nate Sroka
Nathan “Nate” Sroka is a mechanical engineer for Ipsen USA, a global manufacturer of heat-treating equipment. Nate graduated from Northern Illinois University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and worked in machine shops and as a designer. A state of Illinois-registered engineer-in-training who values ongoing education, Nate has earned certificates in combustion and industrial furnace safety, as well as recently graduating from the Metal Treating Institute’s YES Management course. Nate loves the outdoors and spends as much time as possible hiking with his dog, Jet, working on his tractor, finding secluded fishing holes and picking blueberries.