Instrumentation engineering is the engineering specialization focused on the principle and operation of measuring instruments that are used in design and configuration of automated systems in electrical, pneumatic domains etc and the control of quantities being measured. They typically work for industries with automated processes, such as chemical or manufacturing plants, with the goal of improving system productivity, reliability, safety, optimization and stability. To control the parameters in a process or in a particular system, devices such as microprocessors, microcontrollers or PLCs are used, but their ultimate aim is to control the parameters of a system.
Instrumentation engineering is loosely defined because the required tasks are very domain dependent. An expert in the biomedical instrumentation of laboratory rats has very different concerns than the expert in rocket instrumentation. Common concerns of both are the selection of appropriate sensors based on size, weight, cost, reliability, accuracy, longevity, environmental robustness and frequency response. Some sensors are literally fired in artillery shells. Others sense thermonuclear explosions until destroyed. Invariably sensor data must be recorded, transmitted or displayed. Recording rates and capacities vary enormously. Transmission can be trivial or can be clandestine, encrypted and low-power in the presence of jamming. Displays can be trivially simple or can require consultation with human factors experts. Control system design varies from trivial to a separate specialty.
Instrumentation engineers are responsible for integrating the sensors with the recorders, transmitters, displays or control systems, and producing the Piping and instrumentation diagram for the process. They may design or specify installation, wiring and signal conditioning. They may be responsible for calibration, testing and maintenance of the system.
In a research environment it is common for subject matter experts to have substantial instrumentation system expertise. An astronomer knows the structure of the universe and a great deal about telescopes – optics, pointing and cameras (or other sensing elements). That often includes the hard-won knowledge of the operational procedures that provide the best results. For example, an astronomer is often knowledgeable of techniques to minimize temperature gradients that cause air turbulence within the telescope.
Instrumentation technologists, technicians and mechanics specialize in troubleshooting, repairing and maintaining instruments and instrumentation systems.