Open your hand. Do you see it there? Sitting snugly in the crook of your palm is a combination of two delicious chocolate wafers with a terribly sweet cream filling sandwiched in between. You pinch the delightful concoction between two fingers and read the letters across the middle: O-R-E-O. Then you notice another in your other hand. There’s another on the table in front of you next to a tall glass of milk. Next to that glass is the rest of the package. Go on, treat yourself.
Since 1912, the Oreo has been a staple of our snack food consumption. It’s iconic look, taste, even smell, has barely changed in more than 100 years. Imagine, though, that upon finishing the first cookie in your hand, and pouncing on the second, you notice a slight difference. Maybe it’s the taste, not as chocolaty as the first; or the size, a bit smaller. Then you notice the whole package is just a bit … off. Some are spelled wrong, others are ovals or rhomboids. At this point, no one would fault you for putting down the Oreos and going in search of Nutter Butters.
We have one thing to thank for ensuring virtually every single Oreo is the same: automation. Automation was first implemented in 1968 by the automatic transmission division of General Motors. The desire was to find a way to phase out large banks of hard-wired relays used in production. While efficient, they were bulky, slow, and in constant need of repair. This led to the design of the first PLC, or Programmable Logic Controller, a computer system designed to operate the phased-out relays using Ladder Logic, a programming language designed specifically to look like an electrical diagram. Fifty years later, PLCs, along with all affiliated automation products and devices, have progressed a long way.
Even today with the power that personal computers have, even the biggest, baddest, and fanciest of them all couldn’t hold a candle to the average $1,500 PLC. The reason is continuity. A computer, while amazing in what it can do, tries to do too much. It likes to please its user. Would you like to open a program? Sure. Want to play a song? Totally. Want to write an email to your mom? Absolutely! A computer can do all these things for you at once. The problem is, though, that doing all these things at once means it cannot do all of them as efficiently as doing tasks one at a time. A PLC is designed to do only one thing at a time, and it does this extremely fast. Adding to the fact that PLCs do not play songs or videos, their graphical user interface is usually dependent upon separate software applications designed as such, leaving the PLC to scan its code for years on end, never missing a beat.
Automation is that key component in ensuring everything happens at the same time, speed and level for as long as production is occurring. Doing billions of calculations per second, these systems can check, double-check, adjust, correct and continue, in the blink of an eye. All of that is vital to organizations that require such precise control — including mining.
This fact is essential throughout the mining industry, especially in processing. Measurements must be accurate when dealing with flow control through pumps, valves and tanks. Timing and recipes must be correct when defining calculations for mixing chemicals. Safety must be paramount when moving men and women a thousand feet below ground. Conveyer belts use Variable Frequency Drives to hold a steady speed. These VFDs are programmed in PLCs to set frequency, alarm conditions, and stop/start commands, just to name a few of the potential 100-plus parameters available to the programming engineer.
While traditionally proprietary in nature, PLCs from competing organizations such as Emerson, Rockwell Automation, and Siemens can work together sharing data, communications channels and information. Each can do roughly the same using standard programming languages like Ladder Logic and Function Block Diagram.
Fears abound when it comes to automation, especially in relation to the job sector. The fear that robots will eventually replace us all isn’t relegated to just a post-industrial wasteland in “The Matrix.” Automation has been a mainstay in many industries for decades and will continue to do so. As systems require finer measurements and quicker response times to changing environments, we need those automated systems to adapt and change, via physical methods like high-temperature locations or improved speed and reliability of networked infrastructures, to ever-expanding roles that a pick-axe and shovel simply can’t do. After all, automation was never designed to replace workers, just replace relays. The wiring still exists. The field devices still exist. Competency across the aisle, from electricians, to operators, to engineers, to programmers is tantamount to a successful business regardless of industry. Hundreds of people must be trained to not only program, but maintain, troubleshoot, design and develop the systems needed.
Remember, it’s automation that keeps those Oreos looking, tasting and smelling the same. So, go ahead, have one, because there are millions more, all the same, where that came from.