By Mark Castle, Head of Automation KÀ at MGM Hotel and Casino
During my career in the entertainment business, I have had the opportunity to design, build, install, and maintain many different types of control systems for a variety of applications. My focus over the last 10 years has been with Cirque Du Soleil’s production of KA. KA has one of the most incredible/complicated hydraulic systems installed in a theatre today. With a 1440-hp system, 6500 gallons of fluid, and 5 of the longest cylinders ever manufactured (4 used in the show, and 1 mounted to the side of the building as a spare), it was the only way to bring the artistic vision of the show to life on a stage for 2 shows a night, 10 shows a week, for almost 12 years.
The control system is also unique in that it operates as a full redundant backup to itself during operation. That includes the PLCs, communication, power, sensors, and positioning encoders. The code was written in a way that allows all of the redundancy to be monitored at all times. So, if there is any type of a system fault, the PLC can vote to either ignore the sensor that is out of range from the other sensors in the same area and send a fault to the operator, or it will safely shut the system down because all the sensors agree there is a problem.
The fun/interesting part of working with such an incredible hydraulic system is that we (KA Automation crew) all continue to look for new and better ways to maintain and operate this equipment. A lot of people think that because the show has been running almost 12 years, it just runs itself, but that is not the case at all. We continue to learn from this machine constantly. From the first time we had to do an oil change that took us a week, to the times we’ve had to replace spool valves and pressure-reducing valves, it’s always a learning experience.
In my opinion, that is why hydraulic systems in the entertainment industry are so interesting to work with. These one-of-a-kind machines don’t come with a manual on how to change the oil because it’s the only one in the world! Another challenge in our industry is finding qualified technicians to work on the systems. The reason we have a hard time finding qualified technicians is that hydraulic mechanics do not usually look for or apply for a position in a theatre, even though our system is larger than most manufacturing plants. Cirque has a great recruitment team that has had to reach out to other industries and schools that have hydraulic systems or training programs in order to bring qualified technicians into our industry.
Technical positions other than lighting and sound exist in the world of entertainment. If mixing high-tech equipment with hydraulics interests you, you may want to look into an automation technician position in entertainment.