What is automation

There are many definitions of the term “automation.” Automation is a discipline, a function, a set of technologies… These are all correct definitions, but they always explain too much or not enough.

Start from here. The term automation was born to identify everything that is necessary to operate a machine (or process) automatically, that is, without human intervention. Industrial automation, in particular, exploits mechanical, electronic and computer technologies for the control of industrial production processes, governing the flows of energy, materials and information.

From a historical point of view, automation was born with the main aim of replacing humans in repetitive or harmful tasks, with equipment capable of operating autonomously or with minimal intervention from the human operator.

By merging industrial technologies of production processes and information technologies, it aims to enable the efficient management of information, positioning itself as a branch of modern engineering that aims to reduce or eliminate human intervention in the production of goods and services.  

How an automation system is made

An automation system can be described as a pyramid (CIM model) in which different levels can be identified that start from the base of the system, which is the process to be controlled, and reach the general business structures. One of the most widespread versions of the CIM pyramid distinguishes four levels: the “field”, i.e. the place where the processes to be controlled and the sensors are located; the “control”, where the automation devices such as regulators, controllers, local HMIs, etc. are located; “supervision” with PCs and systems responsible for monitoring; the “enterprise” level where the other activities of the company reside.

Based on the functions performed in production systems, three types of basic components of an automation system can be identified: sensors  ,  which have as their objective the measurement of quantities of interest to evaluate the progress and/or the correct execution of the work in progress; processors  ,  which, based on the measurements provided by the sensors and the objectives of the work in progress, decide on the actions to be taken;  actuators  , which execute the actions commanded by the processing organs.

Automation methodologies provide   the tools to design, in abstract and formal terms, the algorithms that processing organizations will use to decide what actions to perform on the facility to be automated;  technical automation  is more concerned with the development of physical devices to build sensors, actuators, and processors.

A nod to history 

The forerunner of automation systems can be considered  J. Watt’s speed governor  (late 18th century) for steam locomotives, whose original purpose was to maintain their constant speed, regardless of the weight towed or the gradients of the railway. The governor, based on the actual speed and comparing it mechanically to the predetermined one, was able to obtain the power necessary to vary the speed.

Modern automation was born at the end of the following century, at the time of the industrial revolution and steam engines, from the need to have ever faster and more precise machines. It was therefore necessary to have mechanisms to automatically correct the disturbing factors that alter the operation of the machines.

Until the early 1950s, computers were mechanical or pneumatic devices that allowed the execution of rather limited processing algorithms, and their connection to sensors and actuators was already a complex engineering problem in itself.

Later, however, mechanical-pneumatic adjustment systems were gradually improved. In fact, they formed the basis of industrial chemical and thermal control systems, using real pneumatic signals for their operation.

In the early 1970s, the development of electronics enabled the development of low-cost, small-sized, easily replaceable cards for the regulation and control of valves and actuators. 

The most important novelty was that it was possible to build a single hardware product that could adapt to different applications through software modification.

DCS  (Distributed Control Systems) were born for the management of analog signals (pressure, temperature, etc.) and the regulation of chemical and thermal processes. For the control of conventional electrical machines and devices, devices have been developed to process digital signals, with the aim of replacing traditional electromechanical panels (consisting of relays, timers, pulse counters, etc.): PLCs  (  Programmable Logic Controllers).

The increasing availability of powerful, versatile and inexpensive processing systems has made it possible to perform increasingly advanced control functions; on the other hand, the simplification of the exchange of information between the various elements of an automation system, made possible by communication networks and by the availability of “intelligent” sensors and actuators, i.e. capable of connecting directly to a communication network, has made it possible to simplify the problems of designing, building and managing an automated system and, consequently, to reduce costs.

Over the decades, the development of information technologies and the advent of the Internet have led to a real revolution in automation systems. Today, in fact, advanced technologies such as those that supervise  pharmacy robot , field buses, wireless sensors, the Internet of Things and autonomous communication between machines (M2M), the Cloud, virtual instrumentation, cyber-physical systems, are an essential part of the world of automation. and control, smart sensors and factory intelligence solutions.

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