Automation (ancient Greek: = self dictated) or industrial automation is the use of computers to control industrial machinery and processes, replacing human operators. It is a step beyond mechanization, where human operators are provided with machinery to help them with manual work. The most visible part of automation can be said to be industrial robotics. Some advantages are repeatability, tighter quality control, waste reduction, integration with business systems, increased productivity and reduction of labour. Some disadvantages are high initial costs and increased dependence on maintenance.
By the middle of the 20th century, automation had existed for many years on a small scale, using mechanical devices to automate the production of simply shaped items. However the concept only became truly practical with the addition of the computer, whose flexibility allowed it to drive almost any sort of task. Computers with the required combination of power, price, and size first started to appear in the 1960s, and since then have taken over the vast majority of assembly line tasks (some food production/inspection being a notable exception).
In most cases specialised hardened computers referred to as PLCs (programmable logic controllers) are used to synchronize the flow of inputs from sensors and events with the flow of outputs to actuators and events. This leads to precisely controlled actions that permit a tight control of the process or machine.
Human-machine interfaces (HMI) are usually employed to communicate to PLCs. e.g.: To enter and monitor temperatures or pressures to be maintained.
Another form of automation that involves computers is called test automation, where computers are programmed to mimic what human testers do when manually testing software applications. This is accomplished by using test automation tools to produce special scripts (written as computer programs) that tell the computer exactly what to do in order to run the same manual tests.
Social issues of automation
Automation raises several important social issues. Among them is automation's impact on employment.
Some argue automation leads to higher employment. One author made that case here: When automation was first introduced, it caused widespread fear. It was thought that the displacement of human workers by computerized systems would lead to unemployment (this also happened with mechanization, centuries earlier). In fact the opposite was true, the freeing up of the labor force allowed more people to enter information jobs, which are typically higher paying. One odd side effect of this shift is that "unskilled labor" now pays very well in most industrialized nations, because fewer people are available to fill such jobs leading to supply and demand issues.
Some, such as technocrats, argue the reverse, at least in the long term. First, automation has only just begun and short-term conditions might partially obscure its long-term impact. For instance many manufacturing jobs left the United States during the early 1990s, but a massive upscaling of IT jobs at the same time offset this as a whole.
It appears that automation does devalue unskilled labour through its replacement with less-expensive machines, however the overall effect of this on the workforce as a whole remains unclear. Today automation of the workforce in the "western world" is quite advanced, yet during the same period the general wellbeing of its citizens has increased dramatically. What role automation played in these changes has not been well studied.
Currently, for manufacturing companies, the purpose of automation has shifted from increasing productivity and reducing costs to increasing quality and flexibility in the manufacturing process. In the last five years major manufacturing companies have shifted focus due to intensifying competition and difficulties working with a low-level skilled workforce.
The old focus on using automation to increase productivity and reduce costs is now being exchanged for the new, because companies are having trouble finding a skilled workforce who can make repairs and manage the machinery. Because manufacturing companies could not find and were having difficulty training people to be highly skilled in managing machinery, they stopped focusing on increasing productivity, because it was putting people out of work. They also switched, because with a low supply of people to manage the new equipment it became too costly of a procedure.
Automation is now applied to increase quality to the manufacturing process, where automation can increase quality substantially. For instance, pistons used to be installed into engines manually. Currently, they are in transition to being installed by machines. This is because the error rate for manual installment was around 1-1.5%, and now it is 0.00001% with automation. They are also implementing automation to operations that may be hazardous to employees, such as casting.
The other major shift in automation is to increase flexibility and convertibility to the manufacturing process. As stated above, automation was previously used to increase productivity and cost efficiency directly to the manufacturing process. Now, manufacturers are trying instead to increase flexibility (for example, the ability to switch from making Product A to making Product B on the same machines on the same production lines).
Safety issues of automation
One safety issue with automation is that while it is often viewed as a way to remove human error from a system, increasing automation also increases the consequences of error. For example if you go to a basic level of automation where a human is hammering a nail with a hammer then the consequence of an error is rather small, perhaps they will get a sore thumb. Taking that to the high level industrial automation that exists in today, suddenly an error can result in the destruction of a whole factory and the loss of many lives. The safety issue is that with automation we have machines designed by people with high levels of expertise, which operate at levels of speed beyond human cognitive ability to react, being operated by people with high school education. Ultimately with high levels of automation when something goes wrong the consequences are also at the high level.
Useful journals and books on automation
- RMCybernetics - Automation Home Automation & Industrial Developments.
- International Journal of Automation and Control
- Automation Network Selection
- The Consumer Guide to Fieldbus Network Equipment for Process Control
- Wireless Networks for Industrial Automation 2nd Edition
- Jeremy Rifkin: The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era