How electronics shaped manufacturing 1961-2011

MODERN manufacturing involves a high degree of automation and multiple complex systems. Regulating all of these and ensuring the safety of the workers who run and interact with these machines are computers and logic circuits. Electronics reside in the centre of all of these.

A world without electronics and its attendant technologies such as the internet is unimaginable today. Having electricity is all well and good, but without active electrical components with which to manipulate and control this energy and have it do our bidding – that is, electronics – electricity would be at best useless, and at worst, deadly.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the 1960s hold great significance for modern manufacturing. Not only was Manufacturers’ Monthly launched in May 1961, but electronics-based industrial control systems really had their origins in this decade.

By the 1960s, electronic technology had evolved past the vacuum tube and through the diode, with the first silicon transistor making its debut at the hands of Texas Instruments in 1954. Bell Labs then brought out the first MOS transistor in 1960. 

Also in the 1960s, third generation computers (so-called mini-computers, because they didn’t fill an entire room) had started to show up, and they were taken-up quite enthusiastically by the manufacturing sector to control their processes.

However, hard-wired relay logic systems, timers and sequencers were still quite an important part of controlling machinery and assembly lines. The automotive manufacturing industry was the first, in 1968, to replace these with a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) to automate its processes. Today, PLCs are quintessential in manufacturing, as well as a host of other industries. 

In 1975, responding to the need for improved data gathering and control of continuous and batch manufacturing processes, Honeywell and Yokogawa released, independently, Distributed Control Systems (DCS). The development of the DCS, like so many other electronic advances, stood on the shoulders of giants. The 1970s saw the emergence of microprocessors, microcontrollers and digital signal processors thanks to Intel, and microcomputers had become easily available. 

Of course, throughout all this, PLCs continued to evolve in sophistication, and today, many PLCs take on multiple functions, including that of DCSs. While DCSs were instrumental in introducing distributed intelligence to manufacturing plants, the next step was to connect everything together. Sydney-based Midac played a key role in this, by implementing a Direct Digital Control DCS at the University of Melbourne, which made use of a serial communications network for control.

But electronics continues to rapidly evolve. Photovoltaic technology is helping combat environmental problems by presenting an alternative energy source. Continuing research in nanolithography and molecular scale electronics promise to push past the current perceived limits in miniaturisation. Spintronics and light-based quantum circuits could see Moore’s Law relegated to obsolescence. Printable electronics could finally break the rigid mould of electronics on silicon boards by with stretchable and bendable solutions.

With the increased ubiquity and power on the part of electronics, manufacturers could see improved automation capabilities of ever more complex tasks, even more visibility into their processes, increased remote control and monitoring, lower implementation costs, and the use of electronics along with all its benefits in areas previously deemed too harsh or dangerous for circuits.

All this means workers are better insulated from risky processes, and can move to higher tier and more productive tasks, while end products come out better designed, with improved quality and repeatability.

Isaac Leung is editorial coordinator of Electronics News – Manufacturers’ Monthly’s sister publication.

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