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Just what is Automation?

Anyone who has been in the Automation world for very long gets really used to this question: What is Automation? It's one of those questions that should be easy to answer, but when talking with someone who is not in our field we tend to struggle to put it into relatable terms. When put on the spot, I usually over simplify and say something like, "I program pumps and valves" which is actually fairly inaccurate. I control pumps and valves (and much, much more) by programming PLCs.

So what is automation? Automation is a bit of a catch all phrase for the industry but it encompasses two broad categories: 1) Controlling something (presumably automatically) and 2) Presenting that information graphically on a screen.

1. Controlling something

The heart and soul of automation is control. You have something and you want to control it. A great example of this that has grown in popularity in recent years are those automated Christmas light shows. By plugging your lights into a special control mechanism you can sync up a light show to some music.

Another example would be home automation system that give you the ability to control light switches, deadbolts, garage doors, coffee makers, sprinklers, just about anything really, automatically based on the time of the day, or some predefined criteria. The means of control in an residential environment is typically a device such as an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi.

These prebuilt boards allow you to write a program using a language such as C or Python. They are inexpensive, modular, and easy to learn. They are not, however, designed for industrial use. Once you get to an industrial level you use a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC). Two of my favorites are the M340 from Schneider-Electric

and the ControlLogix from Allen-Bradley.

Both these PLCs (and many more I've used) offer robust industrial products. Rather than using C or Python though, PLCs are programmed using languages such as ladder logic, function block diagrams, or structured text.

2. Present the Information

Controlling something is only half the Automation process, however. Most people want to see or better yet directly control what they are automating from a graphical interface. For example, if you have a pool with a water slide, you could turn it on by walking over to a mesh of pipes, turning a valve and hoping you correctly remembered which valve was for the water slide instead of turning on the fountain again. Or you could just open your phone and click on button on the screen clearly labeled "Water Slide".

Obviously, the second option is a superior option! Not only is it more accessible, it's more intuitive. In an industrial setting, making an intuitive and accessible interface is paramount in the automation process. After all, no one wants an operator to have to go through a complicated series of tasks to turn on a pump to keep sewage from backing up out of our sinks, do we? As an example, this is the display I designed for Analog devices (such as temperatures or water levels) using a software package called Ignition:

This display uses principals from High Performance HMIs. It reserves bold colors for warnings and alarms, and it provides a trend chart showing the past values of the analog device. All the information is arranged in a manner that logically flows and allows for quick responses by an operator.

So that, in a nutshell, is what automation is.

Arduino and Raspberry Pi photo Credit:

M340 photo credit: Schneider-Electric

ControlLogix photo credit: Rockwell Automation

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