Automation is the process by which machines and computers are delegated tasks which they not only perform but also regulate, to varying degrees. In the process of automation, control of a process is turned over, in some measure, to the machine, such that the machine controls the pace of the work and the rate of the input, output, or both.
The term “automation” covers an enormous swath of applications, devices, and machines, and it is difficult to explain automation comprehensively, because the field is constantly expanding and becoming more advanced and more complicated. But it is possible to give some basic examples of automation. For instance, an “automatic” car has an automated transmission. The transmission is responsible for performing several tasks on its own: deciding when to shift into a higher or lower gear, and then performing the shifting motion. Both of these things represent separate instances of automation.
Another example of automation is a bank’s phone system that gives customers information about their accounts when they call. This phone system, like the car’s automatic transmission, is made up of several different automated tasks. These include answering the phone call, prompting the customer for information, collecting the information, processing the information, and then giving the customer a response based on the inputs he or she has provided.
To fully understand automation, it is important to understand the distinction between automation and “mechanization.” Mechanization is the process by which humans are given tools that they can use to complete a task. While the task may be done most directly by the tool, and not the human, throughout the process the human remains totally in control of what is being done. A pair of hedge clippers, for instance, are an instance of mechanization. However, the human using the hedge clippers does not cede any control of the process to the hedge clippers; in that way, they fall short of meeting the requirements to be “automated.”
Automation and Industrialization
Now that you understand the difference between automation and mechanization, it is possible to speak about them both and their relationship to “industrialization.”
Industrialization is a long transition that occurred, or is occurring, in almost every single society on earth. During industrialization, a society transitions from processing natural resources and growing crops to processing those crops and natural resources into higher order goods. This requires the emergence of mass-manufacturing, which is an industrial process that transforms natural resources into man-made commodities. Factories, machine-powered farming, and the growth of large cities are all part and parcel of industrialization.
In the process of industrialization, mechanization typically comes first, though there is some overlap between mechanization, automation, and the times at which they occur. Throughout industrialization, many processes that were previously done by hand—like sewing and picking crops—become mechanized, such that they are performed by machinery, not people. At a later point, those same processes become automated, and the machines that were once controlled by people instead can largely run without the oversight or assistance of humans. The process of automation slowly removes human oversight—and the need for human oversight—from the equation.
One major distinction to make here is that automation almost never occurs prior to industrialization. The technology and engineering knowledge simply are not present before industrialization starts. However, mechanization in some limited ways is present prior to industrialization. The tools used by farmers, the looms used by weavers, and the various implements used by craftsmen of all stripes do count as low level mechanization. Mechanization speeds up greatly during industrialization, but it starts before. Automation doesn’t start until industrialization is underway.
Because of their sequential relation, it is automation that takes industrialization to its greatest extents. Many times, automated processes replace mechanized processes that did the same thing. A mechanized machine that required human oversight is replaced by an automatic machine that needs only occasional checks by service people, for instance. Industrialization approaches its peak as the automation of a process is perfected.
Advantages of Automation
The advantages of automation revolve mostly around saving time and money, and improving quality and consistency.
Automated processes often go faster than those that are simply mechanized and therefore require some human involvement. This is because automated processes often do a task more quickly than humans can, which means that a definite number of repetitions are completed faster (if that is the goal), or that more is done within a definite time frame (if that is the goal). Automated processes also require less downtime. By contrast, mechanized processes must stop if the human operator needs to rest, eat, or clock out. Automated processes only have to stop when stopping is necessary for the upkeep and performance of the machines involved.
There are also cost savings associated with automated processes. The most obvious of them all is that with automation, it is possible to eliminate human jobs, and the salaries that go along with them. In this way, automating just one task can save enormous amounts of money, if several people were employed doing that task over the course of three shifts (as often happens in a factory). Automation also reduces overhead expenses that go to waste while a task isn’t being performed. As an illustration of this, consider a factory that only has humans working eight hours a day, but is racking up costs for lighting, security, and heat 24 hours a day. With automation, the work can be performed for the entire time that overhead expenses are being incurred, which saves money.
The monetary benefits of automation also come as a result of great throughput. If automation allows a factory to make and then sell more units, it has been beneficial. If automation allows a service to perform its task for more customers, then it has been beneficial. But calculating the total financial benefits of automation is a somewhat more complicated task, and it requires factoring in some of the costs of automation, which will be discussed below.
Automation also tends to improve the quality and consistency of the product being made or the service rendered. This is because automation can do a task very precisely, and with only very minor differences between each instance of the task. For instance, when a widget is being made via a mechanized process, the standard deviation of the size of the widget will be greater than the standard deviation on the size of the same widget, if it were produced by automated means. Such consistency is extremely important (and profitable) for many manufacturers. And if that consistency is tuned correctly, the result can be a product that is of higher quality than humans and mechanized processes can consistently produce. In essence, the instances of irregular or defective products can be greatly reduced, and quality of the median product can be improved via automation.
Disadvantages of Automation
There are also some very significant drawbacks to automation. These mostly have to do with quality, safety, and overhead investment.
As quality is concerned, automation rarely allows for the fine attention to detail that some human workers are capable of. Tasks that require such detail simply cannot be automated, or at least not yet. Tasks that would benefit from such attention, but do not absolutely require it, may already have been automated, but at the detriment of the finished product. A slight decline in overall quality is a tradeoff some manufacturers are willing to take in return for the benefits of automation. (And as noted above, those benefits include improved quality for some manufacturers; this is highly dependent on the manufacturer’s situation.)
Safety threats are inherent in any automated process that does not have constant human oversight. Many automated processes simply lack the capacity to judge the quality of their work, and consequently commit errors that might go undetected by the machine, but would have been detected by a human manager. As automation advances, new and better logic loops are built into machines to test for and detect these safety threats.
Finally, automated machinery is often very expensive at the outset. It is not unusual for an automated machine to cost several times the annual salary (or salaries) of the person who would have completed the same task. When this is the case, the machinery must outlive that period before it starts producing the financial returns the purchasing firm hoped for.
Control systems are automated devices that control the workings of other automated devices.
Typically, control systems are computers that are hooked into automated machinery or other computers. The control system is programmed with standards that are used to govern the operations of all the other machines in the system. These standards dictate when machines should begin and finish their work, what qualities their work should possess, and what constitutes a “defect” or “irregularity” in the system.
Control systems are notable for being a higher order of automation. If a machine that sews shirts without any human oversight is first-order automation, then another machine that surveys the first’s operations and stops and starts it according to schedule would represent second-order automation.
Control systems, though they have been around for decades, are becoming increasingly common in industry worldwide. They allow manufacturers and other industries that use substantial amounts of machinery to eliminate positions that would have previously overseen the machinery, and turn over the regulation to a machine, as well. In this way, control systems can be especially valuable to factories because they eliminate wage-earning positions that were often better paid than those cut by first-order automation.
Control systems push factories closer to total automation, and thereby allow them to increase their productive time. With first order automation, even if the machines could run 24 hours a day, it was often impossible to actually run them so long, because there simply were not people who could oversee them around the clock. But control systems increase the amount of productive hours possible by eliminating the need for such a degree of human oversight.
Types of Automation
There are many different instances of automation that are used in modern day plants, factories, stores, offices, and homes. Below is an overview of some of the more common types.
Circuit breakers are designed to detect problems within an electrical circuit and then, when they do detect such problems, “break” the circuit and kill the electrical flow. This prevents damage to the wiring and other components within the circuit. Circuit breakers constitute automation because they test for issues in the circuit without the need for direct human involvement. They are built with logic loops that can pick up on a number of different problems. Additionally, many circuit breakers have automated devices that open the circuit and kill the electrical flow such that the circuit can easily be put back together. In those cases, the process of breaking the circuit (and not merely monitoring the circuit) also counts as an instance of automation.
Timers & Counters
Innumerable electronic devices today are built with electronic counters. These keep track of seconds, or in many cases milliseconds, and allow the device to coordinate operations that are time sensitive. Timers may not initially seem like automation, but they are because they replace the need for a human that both keeps track of time and directs a device when to perform an operation. With a timer, one simple device inside your phone, computer, television, or another device keeps track of time, and hence is involved in regulating much of what your device does.
Sensors and Transducers
Sensors are used to pick up on stimuli in an environment. Transducers are used to convert energy from one form to another. Together, they serve the purpose of detecting something that is happening around a device, and then turning the input stimuli—be it light, motion, kinetic energy, or something else—into a signal that device can use. For instance, an electric thermometer is a sensor and transducer: It absorbs the heat of your body, and then converts that stimulus into a digital temperature reading. In that case, both the detection and the conversion are fully automated and performed without human assistance.