Automation Comes Alive

Nov. 6, 2007
The full motion and unfolding sequence of events in videos make the examples clearer and easier to understand.

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By Jim Montague, executive editor

Words and pictures are fine, but they don’t move. Whether they appear in the oldest print or the newest website, text and illustrations are basically frozen.

These physical limits of traditional communication media are unfortunate for process automation professionals because they manage applications, systems and end products that are often in constant motion. To learn about and convey helpful techniques and solutions, engineers naturally rely on text and graphics to describe related processes, but many add that it’s better to see systems and components in action. Now, you can.

Aided by far speedier broadband Internet connections and the better video capabilities of modern PCs, process automation end users can quickly pick and choose whatever content they want to see. Much like users making queries on the early Internet, viewers at YouTube.com and similar websites can quickly access almost any video or film from any era—pretty much anything they can think of—not as easy as it sounds. I know this new freedom made me stop and try to test its limits. And, after a few hundred esoteric requests, I only came up empty once or twice.

However, this astounding variety isn’t the best part. Along the way, I found video postings by process control engineers, students, experts, amateurs and other users. Obviously, as soon as some folks found these videos, they immediately started creating  their own too. Here are a few of YouTube.com’s  (ControGlobal.com/automationcomealive.html) automation entries, which are easily searchable there.

  • Several videos include formerly static supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) screen captures, which now come to life, with users narrating how they use function blocks to build applications.
  • “Ladder Logic and a PLC” shows how to use on-screen programming to make water-sensor signals actuate a pump.
  • PID loop control is demonstrated by a user controlling a tabletop-based hovercraft.
  • “Process Control 1” shows how to establish a set point in a control loop. It’s followed by a short instructional series.
  • Two of Yaskawa’s Motoman robots are programmed to play Japanese taito drums in a lab and then in a parade.
  • An Allen-Bradley SLC-50 PLC is used to coordinate a large house’s Christmas lights to flash in time to a rock version of “God Bless You Merry Gentlemen.”
  • Another PLC is used to control small motors on propellers on a Mylar blimp, allowing it to follow and adjust its course around a large classroom. 

In each case, it’s the video’s motion and unfolding sequence of events that make the examples clearer and easier to understand. Watching someone physically drag and drop function blocks into place on screen is more memorable than a caption saying that it’s happening.

These video postings take many forms and come from varied sources. Some are purely instructional, while others demonstrate ongoing projects and experiences. Others consist of goofy and slightly questionable experiments, especially silly ones. Just as the Internet gave process control users a chance to share their experiences with colleagues worldwide, video is reinvigorating these pathways by allowing users to show more dynamic examples of their knowledge and applications. As editors often instruct their writers, showing is better then telling.

I know that the usual promoters and product managers will follow these initial users onto YouTube and elsewhere, and that many have already arrived there. Another benefit for end users is that full-motion video makes it harder to float unsubstantiated claims because presenters have to show directly how their solutions work. Because of the facts and examples that a useful solution possesses, it should be easier to weed out spurious items because they won’t be able to generate a demonstration with enough specific content.
Though most video is now digitized until it’s a subset of newer, more flexible, PC-based data processing, these two  technologies also are developing a symbiotic relationship. PCs and the Internet give video non-broadcast avenues, and video gives computers and the Internet a deep well of content.

In fact, Control’s been in the forefront of this effort for more than two years, with the Process Automation Media Network  (www.controglobal.com/voices/podcast_library.html), where I, Walt Boyes, Nancy Bartels and others have been doing podcasts and videocasts on process automation subjects since 2005. Come take a look or a listen!