How to Implement Control and Automation Technology in Your Organization
When you think of control and automation in business, tasks come to mind that are completed without requiring specific thought or intervention. When a business is automated, it runs routinely and predictably. An automated business is a measure of success, which allows the owner to focus on visionary goals without getting drawn into the day-to-day operation.
Businesses that are automated are more scalable and poised for growth, and therefore have greater value than those that are not. Non-automated businesses typically lack the efficient and well-documented systems that lead to a consistent outcome. Without automation, more manual involvement is required whether it is to manufacture a product, service a customer, or manage internal needs.
Applying the idea of control and automation to AV systems presents two distinct interpretations. One is to automate the process of specifying, designing, building, programming, installing, and commissioning AV systems. Automating these processes creates efficiency and profitability, saves time, and lowers costs.
One example of automating systems is the use of the configured approach to control systems, as opposed to programming control systems. The configured approach can be advantageous as it allows for control system functionality that is streamlined and simplified. Systems are not being looked at as customized, one-off products, but rather as an easily reproducible model that provides a consistent outcome. Ironically, the greater the requirements for automated functionality, the more likely programming, rather than configuration, will be required.
Control and Automation and the User Experience
This takes us to the concept of automation with regard to the functionality of the system and the user experience. If the functionality of an AV system includes a lot of automation, it means that it is less dependent on user interaction and works on its own without the need for thinking or other human variables.
A typical example of a fully automated system is one in which the lights turn on when someone enters a conference room. When a laptop is connected, the display powers on and shows the screen image, the audio is set to a preset level, and a meeting can begin without any user action. When the meeting is concluded, the laptop is disconnected and the room is vacated, the display powers off and the lights dim after a defined elapsed time of inactivity.
In this basic case, there is no user interface for interacting with the system. Everything is automated, making operation consistent and easy without the need for variation or manual operation. This may or may not be desirable for the user or the technology manager supporting the system. Although automation satisfies the need for ease of use and does not require technical understanding, it limits flexibility.
Automation vs. Control
Automation, by definition, is the way in which devices, systems, sensors, and users interact to perform scripted operation resulting in the ease of operation and smarter performance for users. It is notably different from the term “control” in that it provides a series of conditional steps to achieve an outcome rather than single direction operation of functions.
Control describes the manual operation of device functions on a one-to-one basis, which is the opposite of automated. Automation scrips are based on rules that are established by the specifier or programmer of the system presumably based on the needs and desires of the user.
Automation provides a sense of intelligence to the system, but it should not be confused with AI (artificial intelligence). Automation is a predefined operation that may or may not be suited for all situations or users’ needs. There may be cases when automation needs to be overridden based on special scenarios or particular needs. For example, in the previous scenario, what if the user connected their laptop, but they were not ready to share their screen with everyone in the room? They would not have a choice; automated functionality cannot be overridden.
A word of caution is that over-automation can be detrimental to the usability of the system and frustrating to the user. For that reason, it is recommended that the ability to enable, disable, or adjust certain forms of operation be built into the system. These settings help to personalize the system operation, so that it can further enhance the user experience. It is also advisable to provide the option for manual control for instances where specific functions outside the realm of the day-to-day operation are required, or an adjustment is necessary to use the system in a different manner due to a service issue.
When specifying automation, like any type of AV control project, it is important to accurately identify and document the specific needs and expectations of the users, how they plan to operate the system, and how automation can enhance their experience. Automation can be subjective and requires a good fit with the users’ comfort level, organization’s culture, and needs of the support staff. It can vary based on situation or organization.
For example, in an educational setting, the requirements for automating the powering off and on of the system may be different than in a corporate environment. If a room is not scheduled in an educational setting, it is likely not to be used and can be powered down. In a corporate setting, there are more ad-hoc meetings that may go unscheduled. So, consideration must be given to not permit a system to power down automatically if a room is occupied or in use.
Automation can be costly and time-consuming depending on the specific requirements, system design, and equipment selection. When defining automation requirements in an RFP, it is important to be as clear, specific, and detailed as possible. Unlike with control, automation requirements cannot always be predicted and assumed. Certain automation routines are typical, but many are specific to the users and organization’s needs.
Specifying automation requires understanding how to balance functionality, ease of use, flexibility, and budget. It is often said that the easier the system is to use, the harder it was to program. More automation presents more programming effort which in turn takes more time and costs more money. The value of the feature to the client should always be compared to the time and effort required to complete the task. It is important to note that high-end automation, which is often perceived to be easy and a “wow factor” or a “nice to have”, can end up adding time, cost, and complexity to the system without providing much actual value to the client. Understanding how to balance wants and needs will play a major role in the budgeting and RFP process.
Selecting Automation Equipment
Defining the automation requirements is only half the battle. The other half is determining that the equipment and system design can support what is being requested. The best way to specify automation is with a detailed narrative and potential flow chart visually describing the logic required to support the functionality.
It is also important to include the ability to adjust, enable/disable, and fine tune automation settings in the description of requirements. When specifying a system with a good amount of automation, a programmer or control professional should be consulted as a sounding board for the requirements, to weigh in on the time requirements and feasibility of the automation requirements, and ensure that the desired functionality can be performed with the system that is specified.
Installing Automation Equipment
From an installation perspective, automation does not require special skills beyond installing and adjusting sensors to ensure they are properly calibrated to accurately report back information to the system. Motion, light, or auditory sensors can be critical to the proper execution of automation. If sensors are improperly installed or calibrated, the system’s operation will be misaligned.
Installing an automation-based system does not differ greatly from a non-automation-based system. In fact, most systems can have automation layered on top of control functionality. Aside from selecting the proper equipment and including sensors that require setup, there are no major distinctions between the installation of a system with automation and one without. It is the designer and specifier who have the challenge of identifying how the system will operate, and what equipment will support the functionality requirements, while ensuring the requirements are clearly spelled out.
Automation is also a basis for IoT (Internet of Things) operation where devices, systems, and sensors interact to provide optimal behavior. Any device with an external API can be involved in automation as long as there is a computer or control processor on the network where the instruction set can be carried out. It is important to confirm the devices and associated APIs support the required functionality that is requested. Trying to implement functionality that is not properly supported by a device or API will likely result in much extra effort and unreliable behavior. Improper network configuration will also hinder the ability to effectively carry out automation.
Automation’s Importance to the End User
Automation is intended to streamline operation, reduce the variables in the system operation, and think for the user. It may also provide a deliberate operational outcome rather than leaving it up to the user’s familiarity, technical comfort level, or expertise. As with businesses, this type of automation creates efficiency, yields consistency, provides scalability, and requires less support than direct functionality operation utilizing control. Systems can be implemented that provide standards for operation and are less subject to the whims of the users.
Although a non-automated system provides more flexibility and adaptability for differing uses and needs, these systems are in the minority. They are typically multipurpose rooms, large auditoriums, high-end boardrooms, or divide/combine rooms. The users of a typical system for a huddle space, conference room, or classroom would benefit from an automated operation because there are only a limited number of applications and options for functionality the system is intended to provide. Providing direct control functionality would only make the system more complicated and increase chances of user error.
With automation comes consistency, standardization, and familiarity of system operation. This reduces the requirements for support as well as long-term costs. Training requirements for automated systems are much lower than non-automated systems because, if the system is designed, programmed, and installed to provide automated operation, there is less the user needs to know.
In the end, automation in AV systems can be viewed similarly to automation in business. It requires knowing what is needed, developing a plan to achieve it, investing in good people to implement it, and ensuring the organization is ready to support it. AV automation can be considered a way to provide a well-thought out solution which allows users to apply the technology as a valuable tool for facilitating their organization’s success.