Automation or industrial automation or numerical control is the use of control systems such as computers to control industrial machinery and processes, reducing the need for human intervention. In the scope of industrialization, automation is a step beyond mechanization. Whereas mechanization provided human operators with machinery to assist them with the physical requirements of work, automation greatly reduces the need for human sensory and mental requirements as well. Processes and systems can also be automated.
Automation plays an increasingly important role in the global economy and in daily experience. Engineers strive to combine automated devices with mathematical and organizational tools to create complex systems for a rapidly expanding range of applications and human activities.
Many roles for humans in industrial processes presently lie beyond the scope of automation. Human-level pattern recognition, language recognition, and language production ability are well beyond the capabilities of modern mechanical and computer systems. Tasks requiring subjective assessment or synthesis of complex sensory data, such as scents and sounds, as well as high-level tasks such as strategic planning, currently require human expertise. In many cases, the use of humans is more cost-effective than mechanical approaches even where automation of industrial tasks is possible.
Specialised hardened computers, referred to as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), are frequently used to synchronize the flow of inputs from (physical) sensors and events with the flow of outputs to actuators and events. This leads to precisely controlled actions that permit a tight control of almost any industrial process.
Human-machine interfaces (HMI) or computer human interfaces (CHI), formerly known as man-machine interfaces, are usually employed to communicate with PLCs and other computers, such as entering and monitoring temperatures or pressures for further automated control or emergency response. Service personnel who monitor and control these interfaces are often referred to as stationary engineers.
Automation has had a notable impact in a wide range of highly visible industries beyond manufacturing. Once-ubiquitous telephone operators have been replaced largely by automated telephone switchboards and answering machines. Medical processes such as primary screening in electrocardiography or radiography and laboratory analysis of human genes, sera, cells, and tissues are carried out at much greater speed and accuracy by automated systems. Automated teller machines have reduced the need for bank visits to obtain cash and carry out transactions. In general, automation has been responsible for the shift in the world economy from agrarian to industrial in the 19th century and from industrial to services in the 20th century.
The widespread impact of industrial automation raises social issues, among them its impact on employment. Historical concerns about the effects of automation date back to the beginning of the industrial revolution, when a social movement of English textile machine operators in the early 1800s known as the Luddites protested against Jacquard's automated weaving looms — often by destroying such textile machines— that they felt threatened their jobs. One author made the following case. When automation was first introduced, it caused widespread fear. It was thought that the displacement of human operators by computerized systems would lead to severe unemployment.
Critics of automation contend that increased industrial automation causes increased unemployment; this was a pressing concern during the 1980s. One argument claims that this has happened invisibly in recent years, as the fact that many manufacturing jobs left the United States during the early 1990s was offset by a one-time massive increase in IT jobs at the same time. Some authors argue that the opposite has often been true, and that automation has led to higher employment. Under this point of view, the freeing up of the labour force has allowed more people to enter higher skilled managerial as well as specialised consultant/contractor jobs (like cryptographers), which are typically higher paying. One odd side effect of this shift is that "unskilled labour" is in higher demand in many first-world nations, because fewer people are available to fill such jobs.
At first glance, automation might appear to devalue labor 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 is quite advanced, and continues to advance increasingly more rapidly throughout the world and is encroaching on ever more skilled jobs, yet during the same period the general well-being and quality of life of most people in the world (where political factors have not muddied the picture) have improved dramatically. What role automation has 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 broader issues, such as increasing quality and flexibility in the manufacturing process.
The old focus on using automation simply to increase productivity and reduce costs was seen to be short-sighted, because it is also necessary to provide a skilled workforce who can make repairs and manage the machinery. Moreover, the initial costs of automation were high and often could not be recovered by the time entirely new manufacturing processes replaced the old. (Japan's "robot junkyards" were once world famous in the manufacturing industry.)
Automation is now often applied primarily to increase quality in the manufacturing process, where automation can increase quality substantially. For example, automobile and truck pistons used to be installed into engines manually. This is rapidly being transitioned to automated machine installation, because the error rate for manual installment was around 1-1.5%, but has been reduced to 0.00001% with automation. Hazardous operations, such as oil refining, the manufacturing of industrial chemicals, and all forms of metal working, were always early contenders for automation.
Another major shift in automation is the increased emphasis on flexibility and convertibility in the manufacturing process. Manufacturers are increasingly demanding the ability to easily switch from manufacturing Product A to manufacturing Product B without having to completely rebuild the production lines. Flexibility and distributed processes have led to the introduction of Automated Guided Vehicles with Natural Features Navigation.
Different types of automation tools exist: