konnect Issue-date: 31st Jan, 2019.

Automation In Today's World - by Neil Walanj

Second Year B.Tech student in ECE at Vellore Institute of Technology

“Automation is cost cutting by tightening the corners and not cutting them.” ― Haresh Sippy

Automation is the innovation of technology in which a procedure requires minimal or in some cases no human interaction or assistance. With the use of pre-programmed control we can regulate and revolutionise automation in areas which it has been introduced in, and there is hardly a part of our modern life which has been unaffected by it.

The origin of the word is believed to have been around the year 1946 in the field of automobile manufacturing where it was used to explain the utilization of programmed gadgets and controls in the manufacturing of vehicles. In spite of the term being coined in the 1900’s, automation has been found to exist since 700 B.C. (approximately); and according to Mythology it was used at a much earlier time by blacksmiths to aid them for making weapons for the Gods (if you believe in such things). But the real race for automation arose during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800’s.

There was an increase in the demand for goods of all kinds and humans just weren’t adequate enough to mass produce. This led to the automated loom which was designed by Jaucques de Vaucanson in 1745. Although this was believed to be a step in the direction of automation technology, it was in fact just a result of trial-and-error with some intuition. This gross error was realised by engineers and technicians, so control systems were introduced which would oversee, co-ordinate, direct and manage the functioning of devices and systems. This was one of the major stepping stone to the modern and advanced automation we now know. New inventions such as temperature and pressure regulators were designed and fabricated for the making of automatic control systems, which was utilised in the making of the first automated flour mill developed by Oliver Evans in 1785.

A control system consists of subsystems and processes assembled for the purpose of obtaining a desired output with a desired performance for a given specified input. It has numerous applications, for example a self guided vehicle delivering materials from one workstation to other in a workshop; a space shuttle contains numerous control systems without which it would be impossible to guide the space shuttle from Earth to its location and support the life on board simultaneously. There are two major control system configurations: open loop and closed loop.

An open loop control system or a non feedback system is a type of continuous control framework in which the output has no impact on the control of the input given to the system. It consists of a subsystem called an input transducer which converts the input to a form which is used by the controller. The controller drives the process and gives the desired output, but there are also disturbances which are added to the controller. The problem in this system is that it cannot compensate or correct for any of the disturbances that are added to it. For example, an electronic amplifier takes an input which we provide. The disturbance is added to the controller is present in the form of noise. This noise affects the output of the amplifier and corrupts it. The system cannot correct the output despite knowing that disturbances were received. To rectify this a supervisor is required to check if there is any error present in the input given to the system and accordingly modify the signal received.

To rectify the biggest flaw of open loop control systems i.e. disturbances, closed loop control systems are present. Closed loop control systems utilizes an open loop control system for its input but has one or more feedback loops which are used to detect the errors. The first summing junction algebraically adds the signal from the input to the signal from the output, which arrives via the feedback path. The output signal is subtracted from the input whose result is called an actuating signal. If there is any difference between the responses, the system rectifies the signal to make a correction.

There also exists a third type, called computer control systems. In this with the help of a digital computer the loops can be controlled or compensated according to our needs. This system is more feasible as the only changes, if the process needs to be altered, is in the software, compared to other systems where there is a change in hardware.

These control systems are present in all automation systems. In home automation we prefer the use of computer controlled systems as it is easy to modify. A house with automation integrated in it is called a Smart Home. In this, IoT devices are integrated in almost all parts of the house. They can be time or motion sensitive. You could design a setting in which, at 6 A.M. you would want the curtain to be opened, water heater to be set at a specific temperature and music to be played.

These devices are integrated together with the use of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and it has a central computer which controls the working of the system. These devices can also be remotely controlled. Suppose you want your living room to have a certain temperature for when you return home from work; you could either set the setting for a specific time or you could remotely control it from your mobile phone. You could also integrate a smart speaker into your system, with AI and Machine Learning to map your day to day activities, and perform tasks with you having to do almost nothing. The beauty of home automation lies not only in its ability to make our life easier, but also it keeps the entire system power efficient. It calculates the time period when a gadget is needed and accordingly provides power to it, hence conserving energy when it is not needed.

Home automation can be assumed to be a single level system with no hierarchy. But there are multi level systems too. Industrial automation consists of a base level of sensors, motors and actuators which control or are directly in contact with the processes which are going on. Next, the PLCs (Programmable Logic Controller) which control the peripherals and process the data to determine what has to be done. The next level consists of the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), which controls multiple systems and performs functions on the data it receives from the PLCs. The final level consists of the MES (Manufacturing Execution System). It controls the entire manufacturing part of the factory which includes all the processes from the amount of raw material required, to the amount of goods that are being produced. This high level of integration is required to run a large scale industry successfully and efficiently.

With the current day and age in consideration, automation is developing at a rapid speed but it still has a long way to go. The level of automation in both industry and in our homes has increased drastically over the decade and is continuing to improve with the integration of various technologies such as AI and Machine Learning. This has made us highly dependent on technology to perform our high coordination tasks, but like Moore’s law may die out, there might come a time when automation reaches its absolution and we have no scope of further development. What would we do then?