Control is every engineer’s grand pursuit, yet so many things lie outside of their influence, like the unbreakable laws of thermodynamics that define energy systems. Control engineering is about working within limitations to create as efficient a system as possible: doing the best you can with what you have. Absolute control is unobtainable, but mechanical and control engineers can get impressively close.
What Is Control Systems Engineering?
Control systems engineering, also known as control engineering, involves the use of automatic control systems to achieve specific objectives under constraints. Confused by the technical jargon? Don’t worry, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about control engineering, starting with the basics.
A system consists of interconnected components defined by a boundary, along with inputs (desired process) and outputs (actual process) that cross that boundary. A rudder, for instance, is an input that influences a boat’s velocity, which is an output.
Control systems measure outputs and adjust inputs accordingly. A power plant is a control system in which a manager monitors outputs, such as electricity and waste, and influences inputs, such as coal, oil or natural gas. Modern control systems are complex, consisting of multiple inputs and outputs.
The two most common control strategies are open-loop and closed-loop control. An open-loop system consists of a controller (human or automated) that responds to an input by producing a control action influencing system behavior and output. An example is a portable space heater, which operates on temperature presets regardless of actual room temperature.
A closed-loop, or feedback, control system measures and compares outputs to inputs. If there’s a difference, the controller generates a control action to produce the desired outcome. As a controller in a closed-loop system, your thermostat monitors indoor air temperature and, when the temperature is too high, signals your air conditioning system to cool your home. Aspiring mechanical and control engineers can expect to spend a lot of time working on closed-loop control systems.
Automatic control, the crux of modern control engineering, builds on everything we’ve discussed. Automatic control systems seek to replace humans with digital and computer controllers whenever possible, allowing for more precise systems that can react without thought. Washing machines, water heaters and refrigerators are just a few examples of automatic control that can be found in everyday life, and if a product isn’t automated, it was likely created in a facility that is. Entire industries, such as automotive manufacturing, rely on automatic control systems, which is why control engineers are so highly regarded.
The Challenge of Being a Control Engineer
The role of a control engineer can be boiled down to finding the right input signal or designing the right controller to achieve objectives. The challenge comes from balancing expectations with reality, accounting for constraints when designing systems and their various subsystems. Doing so requires a deep understanding of advanced mathematics and to a growing extent, information technology and software engineering.
Take Control of Your Career With the Help of UT Austin
Control systems engineering overlaps with many other branches of engineering, particularly mechanical engineering. The smallest design changes can have a profound impact on systems, requiring the expertise of a professional with a background in control engineering.
At The University of Texas at Austin, we set up all of our graduates for success by ensuring they have an in-depth understanding of control engineering, especially if they earn our specialized graduate certificate.
Mechanical Engineering Controls Graduate Certificate
The 100% online Mechanical Engineering Controls Graduate Certificate program provides an in-depth understanding of the control and optimization of systems. Our online course Introduction to Automatic Control will be of particular interest to you, as will the other two courses that make up our graduate certificate program: ME 381M Statistical Methods for Process Control and Manufacturing and ME 386M Modeling, Simulation, and Control of Physical Systems.
This 9-credit-hour graduate certificate program can be completed in as little as one year, and credit hours earned in this program can be applied to our online Executive MS in Mechanical Engineering, so long as you are accepted and in good academic standing. At UT Austin, how far you go is entirely up to you.
We may be biased, but we can think of no better place to explore the nuances of control systems engineering than UT Austin, ranked among the top 10 public schools in the U.S., according to U.S. News & World Report. Visit our program page to learn more about online learning at UT Austin or apply now if you’re ready to earn a 100% online Mechanical Engineering Controls Graduate Certificate. Control over every aspect of your career may be impossible, but like we said, you can get pretty close.