Industrial Control Basics

     When I was a child in school I loved field trips.  They didn’t happen too often, but when they did they were a welcomed break from the routine of the classroom. Once we went on a tour of a large factory that made telephones.  During the tour we walked amongst gargantuan machines, conveyor belts, furnaces, boilers, pumps, and compressors, all energized and working together to transform raw materials into telephones.  Sequences of manufacturing and assembly operations, from the simple to the most complex, were carefully orchestrated with no apparent human intervention.

     The equipment in the telephone factory was certainly impressive to watch, and our tour guides did a fine job of explaining what was happening, except for one important detail.  I realized after we left that no one had explained who or what was actually controlling the machinery.  I realized even then that machines can’t think for themselves.  They can only do what humans tell them to do.

     I didn’t know it at the time, but the telephone factory setup included some interesting examples of industrial control systems.  Industrial control systems can be broken down into two basic categories, manual controls and automatic controls.  Manual controls work as their name implies, that is, someone must manually press a button or throw a switch to initiate factory operations.  This involves continual monitoring of processes, coupled with hands-on activities to keep everything working.

     Automatic controls still require human intervention to some extent, such as initiating operations, but once that’s done they move into self-regulation mode until the operations are shut down at the end of production.  Employees are thus freed up to spend time doing things which are not automated.  Automatic controls are excellent at handling mundane, repetitive tasks that humans tend to get quickly bored with.  Boredom leads to a lack of attention, and this may lead to accidents, so utilizing automatic controls often makes for a safer work environment.

     Next time we’ll begin our examination of how manual and automatic controls work within the context of an industrial setting.  To begin, we’re going to take a virtual field trip back to the telephone factory and look at some basic industrial control examples.



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