What is Automation?
Automation is an old word that we apply to making machinery or processes go by themselves. Decades ago, it would apply to simple things like automatic (self-cocking) rifles. Then along came automatic gearboxes in cars. Robotic equipment in manufacturing plants is another example. Now in the 21st century we use automation in all kinds of buildings to control environmental functions such as air conditioning, ventilation, lighting, safety, security, fire and flood alarms, etc. It is for the safety, comfort and convenience of the building's occupants. Other advantages are cost saving, reducing energy and resource consumption, built in alarms and performance monitors. and extending the life of equipment.
The latest development of automation is networking of devices to work together and is called the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Automation plus IoT makes for a 'smart building', 'smart business' or 'smart home', etc. The difference is mainly in scale. We connect various combinations of automated machines, software and electronics together by wires and/or wirelessly in a flexible, adaptable network. The purpose is for that network to sense, interact and respond intelligently to changes according to human wishes. Electrical things which formerly had no way to communicate, now can interact with each other and us. We can now even connect devices made by different manufacturers (with different operating systems) so they can 'talk' to each other. Internet of Things is being called “the next industrial revolution” because it will change everything about the way we live, work, administer, produce, trade, travel and entertain. The major areas directly relevant to us in which automation and IoT are used are:
- Industrial production and manufacturing
- Business operations
- Your home, the 'smart home'
- Farms - automated animal and crop production
Automation and Internet of Things components
Automation is possible for many different processes, devices and vehicles. However Internet of Things automation requires them to be networked together. There is a wide range of components to connect and ways of connecting them (known as topology).
At the basic level you have input/output devices. They are:
- sensors - devices that sense conditions, eg. temperature, flow, voltage, humidity and send the information to the controller or gateway.
- actuators - devices that action the necessary changes when the gateway tells them to, such as increase the temperature.
- valves and distributors that control the movement of information.
- vehicles (cars, tractors, buses, etc.).
At the control level you have:
- a gateway - a hardware device that collects information from the sensor devices connected to it. It then sends the data higher up for processing. When it receives instructions back it passes them on to the actuators to do.
- a computer, smartphone, server or the cloud where the data is sent and stored by the gateway.
- software to process and analyze the data coming in through the gateway from sensor devices, valves and distributors, and send back instructions.
- diagnostic and security programs to check everything is working properly and is secure. Faults can be quickly discovered and fixed.
- remote control of maintenance.
- a user interface (touchscreen, computer, pad) for people to work on and with the system. The data is presented to you in understandable form and you can interact with it, such as change the settings.
In big business and industry the next levels are:
- production control level - to check and control every aspect of the business management and manufacturing processes and provide data to inform decision making
- corporate planning level - to use the data to plan increased efficiency, design new and better ways of doing things.
Connecting things has become simpler and more flexible with a system called Actuator-Sensor Interface (AS-i). A messy network of cables has been replaced by one cable that carries power and the data between 5 basic components:
- a 'master' - the hardware gateway, which can do some processing and controlling, or send it higher for more comprehensive processing and analysis.
- 'slaves' - first level controllers that report the sensor information to the master or gateway, then relay the decisions to the actuators.
- the sensors and actuators, aka input/output devices (I/O) that exchange information with the gateway via the slaves. Each I/O device has its own internet address so the master can identify them.
- power supply
- the AS-i cable
Things can be connected across the world, eg. a security breach turns a camera to film the action and notifies the right people (eg. owner overseas, security company). A fire alarm likewise notifies you and the fire department.
The information travels along this track:
Environmental information goes into the sensors (eg sensor detects extreme heat) -> to the master or gateway -> to information processing in computer, server, cloud or smartphone -> decision sent back to gateway -> commands sent to actuators -> they action the necessary changes, ie. turn on sprinkler which puts out flame.
It's like a human nervous system, with senses, nerves and brain, telling cells and muscles what to do!
- Simple to install.
- It requires little running or maintenance - saves a lot of time, money and human energy.
- Reduces wiring installation cost.
- Can be operated without much technical skill.
- Increased business efficiency due to overviews of operations that were difficult to obtain before.
- Flexibility of system - many ways and devices can be connected. Many possible locations for components.
- Widely compatible.
- Fast expansion and retro-fitting of the system is possible.
- Problems and faulty parts can be identified and fixed or replaced quickly.
- Energy saving.
- Increase in security and safety.
- Not affected by noise.
- Consistency of results.