14 D.J. Toncich - Computer Architecture and Interfacing to Mechatronic Systems
2.1 A Review of Developments in Digital Computer Control
Digital computer control is a relatively recent phenomenon. It began toproliferate in the 1970s as a result of the increased computational capacity of digitalcomputers and the increased availability (and "affordability") of integrated digitalcircuits. However, early developers in digital computer controls faced a difficult task because the external systems requiring control were predominantly analog in nature.Ironically, now that we have an enormous supply of devices to simplify the process of interfacing to analog systems, we increasingly find that the "systems" themselves arebecoming more digital in nature as a result of the increasing intelligence of constituentcomponents. Unfortunately for early system designers, the cost of control computers wasrelatively high and so, as a result, only the most expensive and complex processes weregenerally considered for computerisation. The cost of applying computers to simplecontrol systems was prohibitive and so designers had to add to their professional skillsby first tackling the worst possible problems, with few experts to turn to for advice.Typical applications included:
Power station control systems
Chemical plant and refinery controllers
Metal smelting plant controllers
Large-scale food processing control systems. All of these types of computer applications can be classified under the umbrella of "real-time control" and all suffer from similar problems. The problems include: (i) The need to extract information from hundreds of sensors and energytransducers(ii) The need to process incoming information in "real-time" (ie: before thenext change of information occurs)(iii) The need to output signals to hundreds of sensors and transducers. Very few real-time control problems had been tackled by computermanufacturers up until the 1970s. Most manufacturers had been busy enough justdeveloping computers to handle the growing number of data processing tasks that hadarisen during the 1960s. However, the requirements of real-time control were quitedifferent and, given the limitations of the technologies available in the 1970s, designersdid an outstanding job in creating relatively reliable end systems. Typical computer control systems in the 1970s had an architecture of the formshown in Figure 2.1. This is commonly referred to as a "hierarchical" controlarchitecture. It is composed of an intelligent control device (computer), referred to asthe host, and a number of unintelligent slave devices (sensors, transducers, actuators,amplifiers, etc.) that together make up a functioning system.