Instrumentation is the art of combining sensors, displays, records and controls to measure, monitor or control a process. It is an engineering specialty, usually in a manufacturing or industrial environment, with the aim of improving system productivity, reliability, safety and stability.
Historically, instrumentation has largely consisted of mechanical devices that indicate, measure or record physical quantities. Early examples include meteorological sensors that moved a pen across paper driven by clockwork, and pneumatic chart recorders that displaced a pen through a pressurized bellows.
In the nineteenth century, mechanical instruments were progressively replaced by electronic versions. Electric pianos, organs, violins and violas, and guitars, banjos and mandolins are all examples of electronic instruments.
These instruments are still in widespread use, and many are manufactured in China or India. Some are used in the entertainment industry, and others are in the automotive industry, for example.
There are a number of different types of electronic instrumentation, including transducers, amplifiers, and processors. Transducers are used to measure and sense such things as temperature, pressure, vibration, sound or weight. Amplification is used to increase the intensity of an electric signal or change its frequency, while processors can be used for controlling a motor, relay, or other device.
An instrumentation course in some form is an important part of any electrical or electronics engineering program. It is an essential component of study and must be balanced with other courses to maintain a strong link between the two disciplines.
The history of instrumentation includes many epochal innovations, including the Telharmonium, which produced alternating currents by means of rotary generators, telephone receivers and horns; the Hammond organ, which amplification was achieved by rotating cylinders instead of by valves; and tape music, which was developed by Pierre Schaeffer, Ernst Toch, and other composers in the French Club d’Essai and Cologne, W.Ger., studios in the late 1940s.
Early electronic keyboard instruments employed either rotary electrostatic generators or optical disks with photoelectric cells to produce sound. Some were successful, such as the Hammond organ; other, more experimental instruments employed vacuum-tube oscillators or a variety of other techniques that have since been replaced by digital technology.
Modern automobiles contain complex and sophisticated systems for indicating various vehicle conditions, such as battery voltage, temperature, fluid levels, fuel level and transmission position. They also include displays for turn signals, parking brakes, headlights and cruise control.
Some of these display indicators also trigger cautions, such as when the fuel pump is low or the engine is not working correctly. These can be recorded and reported to diagnostic equipment.
Another epochal innovation in instrumentation was the development of distributed control systems (DCSs), often called supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). This incorporated digital controllers in input/output racks that could be connected to the plant, or installed in a central control room.
These controllers were able to communicate with graphic displays in the control room or rooms and allowed control loops to be cascaded and interlocked. The DCS was also able to log events and provide high-level overviews of plant status and production levels.