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Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Soul of a New Machine: The Legend of the D5-Evo (Part 2)

A couple of weeks ago, we embarked on the first leg of our journey into the storied history of the hugely popular D5-Evo sliding gate motor. We delved deep into its illustrious past, exploring how it came to be the vanguard of a new, intelligent generation of gate operators and came to define innovation in gate automation.

In this exclusive interview, R & D director Robert Dickens takes us back to those halcyon days. As always Rob writes compellingly, almost lyrically, and this is one interview you don’t want to miss.

“It’s hard to know exactly where the story begins, or at least where the story hits the cusp, the proverbial fork in the road, that led to such a radical shift in CENTURION’s trajectory. Perhaps, as I reflect on it now, it wasn’t a single discontinuity, it was the sum of many disruptive technology hops that ultimately, and ostensibly magically, allow us to appear where we are today.

At least in terms of CENTURION’s culture of driving paradigm-shifting innovation, we need to start right at the beginning. Gate operators in their crudest form are actually far more mechanical than they are electrical. Provide the simplest of contact-based logic, that in combination with two end-of-travel limit-switches that inhibit the operator from driving a gate beyond its mechanical limits, and you have a working automatic gate… And so begins CENTURION’s inexorable genesis. Pat [Dickens, CENTURION MD] and Richard [Rohman, CENTURION marketing and sales director) with their respective electrical and mechanical backgrounds developed operators that fell into this class of automation – just opening and closing a gate with the crudest of remote control stimulus.

But competition was fierce back in those days… Or so it is regaled in folklore! In truth, the barrier-to-entry was just very low. You didn’t need much technology expertise to get into the game. Out of this free-market primordial soup came the DNA for CENTURION’s later prominence in the access automation market – a deep commitment to constantly innovate! I recall Pat investing hundreds, if not indeed thousands, of hours developing the logic, that back in those days was entirely implemented using CMOS logic gates, to design gate controllers that evolved beyond crudely opening and closing gates. I believe that CENTURION’s long-standing alpha-characteristic of developing feature-rich products became part of our genetics at this formative point in our history.

So too with Darwin’s Finches, we built on this genetic blueprint fairly linearly and organically over the next of several years. Change is inevitable though… As the business grew, Pat and Richard had less and less time to invest in the development of new products. Enter Ian Rozowsky! At the time, a young and fairly recent university graduate with a new technology skillset. He radically changed the landscape with the introduction of microcontroller-based controllers. Recall, up until this point all behavioural logic was implemented using logic gates. Logic gates in their own right are ingeniously clever, but they don’t scale well with complexity. At least not when functional behaviour is built by hand, gate by gate. For us, microcontrollers represented the next technology discontinuity in our evolutionary development. In R&D we often discuss what is referred to as a ‘technology enabler’. 

The term describes a concept, entity, technology, paradigm, etc., that does more than address the direct requirement for its existence. Of course, it must address the direct and immediate requirement that justifies its initial existence, but often its real value lies in its indirect and often subtle merits. It ‘enables’ entirely new ways of conceptualising, implementing, and developing systems and/or products. Microcontrollers for CENTURION were, and still very much are, one of the most significant ‘technology enablers’ we’ve leveraged to create our strong lineage.

Microcontrollers rapidly accelerated our ancestry all the way to the point where we introduced the CP80 sliding-gate controller. Without doubt, it was a product well ahead of its time. In fact, it was functionally so far ahead of its time, that it got a bit ahead of itself. The functionality it offered far exceeded the user interface we’d provided in support of it. It was this genetic misstep that was one of the primary drivers in the ultimate development of the Evo platform.

Our history becomes a bit disjointed at this point; because the Evo didn’t evolve linearly from the CP80. Strange as it may seem, it actually evolved from a parallel genus in the form of our swing gate operators. For largely circumstantial reasons, the business was developing the Vector swing gate operator at the time. Mechanically this operator, for reasons that will make for a story for another day, required a controller that fundamentally controlled the operator in a radically different manner to the manner in which we’d been controlling motors up to this point. CENTURION, as it had done numerous times before, disruptively innovated; developing a new way to control motors in the context of gate automation. It was a subtle but disruptive paradigm shift that closed the control loop giving us full control to not only accelerate a gate, but decelerate it too, in a deterministic and controlled manner. To this day, we remain at the apex of motor control technology in the world of gate automation.

The Vector also introduced a far more sophisticated user interface in the form of an onboard LCD. Over the years we’ve identified the LCD as another significant ‘technology enabler’. It’s directly addressed the non-intuitive configuration weaknesses we had historically introduced in controllers like the CP80, but it has facilitated so much more. It’s enabled the ability to configure advanced parameters like precise operator speeds, and introduce advanced features like time-barred, and auto-activated access (that appeared in the Evo platform).

The Evo therefore inherited the intelligent design of the Vector platform, and subtly built upon it. 

Logic gates had given way to microcontrollers; and even though we’d been using microcontrollers for nearly two decades, we’d always used them fairly conservatively. Again, for reasons that extend beyond the horizon of this story, even the Vector had evolved on the back of fairly conservative design paradigms. The Evo became the first platform therefore to break this design thinking. And this change has become another ‘technology enabler’ that has enabled new and innovative ways of designing and manufacturing products that offer strong value propositions. For example, this change in thinking has facilitated support for multiple languages on many of our newer generation controllers.

The development of the Evo platform could not stand in isolation. Indeed it stands on the shoulders of many giants before it. It is an incremental evolution of product design in CENTURION’s long lineage of creating compelling products. Disruptive innovation has always been a defining characteristic in CENTURION’s DNA. I suspect the Evo, for all that it is, is currently the canon realisation of that intangible.”

Read part one of the story of the D5-Evo here.