Sense, compute, control

Source: Wikimedia. This image is in the public domain.

What’s new?

At Engineering360, technical writer Janeita Reid writes about the use of sensors throughout the electrical grid, from generation to use.

What does it mean?

My father was one of the chief architects of TASI, the multiplexing system used in the first transatlantic telephone cable system in 1956. The principles of Time Assignment Speech Interpolation had been known but could not be implemented with slow, bulky, over-heating vacuum tubes; the invention of the transistor in 1947 enabled the application of these principles.  But the invention of the transistor built upon and then required more engineering developments in order to lead to the mass manufacturer of transistors which supported developments such as TASI.  

The invention and development of modern electronics continues to enable more inventions and developments. Rarely if ever does one simple device appear in a flash of genius and lead immediately to new uses. Instead, a soup of swirling ideas and devices leads to constant improvement in the ability of devices to sense, compute, and control other devices. You can see these results in the small computer you use every day, your cell phone, with its amazing ability to help you to communicate, to navigate, and to find information.  

The Department of Engineering that I chaired at Colorado State University-Pueblo offers engineering degrees in two areas: industrial engineering and mechatronics. (To be clear, the two undergraduate degrees are the BS in industrial engineering and the BS in engineering with specialization in mechatronics). Industrial engineering is about designing systems to support efficiency, quality, and safety. Mechatronics combines mechanical and electrical engineering with computer programming to create useful devices. The two fields overlap in many ways; one is their overlap in the use of sensors to collect data, data that can be analyzed for long term systems improvement and for real time decision making.

The essence of mechatronics is the creation of devices that sense, compute, and control. The essence of industrial engineering is using information to improve the operation of systems. When developments that were originally a topic of advanced research in labs such as those at Bell Labs become embodied in undergraduate engineering degrees, you know that progress has been made.

One of Ms Reid’s opening sentences, “Advanced sensors are among transformative disruptors building the case of distributed energy resource systems paired with superior data-driven optimization capabilities,” supports the story I have told. Mechatronic devices, especially the sensors inside them, are the keys that enable better decision making, especially using the optimization techniques of operations research, a part of industrial engineering. She then describes the role of sensors and optimization in power generation (via wind, sun, biomass, and water), power transmission, and power use.

What does it mean for you?

The soup of swirling ideas and devices include sensors and optimization as well as much more. These ideas and devices are revolutionizing the provision of electric power and, as Ms. Reid concludes, enabling the transition to renewable energy. She also touches on the interesting dynamic between decentralization and centralization. Electrical generation can be increasingly less centralized, but sensors support remote control and management of those assets.

Whatever your organization, you should be watching for such trends in sensing, computation, and control to support better decision making. These trends enable you to have a better real time knowledge of what is happening throughout your organization and the system in which it operates. Your approach can start, for example, with Internet searches set up as alerts, to keep you aware of what is happening in your field. What other sensors can you set up for your organization?

Where can you learn more?

 Engineering360 has an impressive list of sensors here, with links to more information for each.

The website of the US Department of Energy is one good place to follow trends in energy, especially renewable energy and changes to the grid.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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