Automation Explained

Automation is the use of control systems and information technologies to reduce the need for human work in the production of goods and services. In the scope of industrialization, automation is a step beyond mechanization. Whereas mechanization provides human operators with machinery to assist them with the muscular requirements of work, automation greatly decreases the need for human sensory and mental requirements as well. Automation plays an increasingly important role in the world economy and in daily experience.

Automation has had a notable impact in a wide range of industries beyond manufacturing (where it began). 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 industrial jobs to service jobs in the 20th and 21st centuries.[1]

The term automation, inspired by the earlier word automatic (coming from automaton), was not widely used before 1947, when General Motors established the automation department. At that time automation technologies were electrical, mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic. Between 1957 and 1964 factory output nearly doubled while the number of blue collar workers started to decline.[2]

Advantages and disadvantages

The main advantages of automation are:

The main disadvantages of automation are:

In manufacturing, the purpose of automation has shifted to issues broader than productivity, cost, and time.

Reliability and precision

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, internal combustion engine pistons used to be installed 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.

Health and environment

The costs of automation to the environment are different depending on the technology, product or engine automated. There are automated engines that consume more energy resources from the Earth in comparison with previous engines and those that do the opposite too. Hazardous operations, such as oil refining, the manufacturing of industrial chemicals, and all forms of metal working, were always early contenders for automation.

Convertibility and turnaround time

Another major shift in automation is the increased demand for flexibility and convertibility in manufacturing processes. 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.

Digital electronics helped too. Former analogue-based instrumentation was replaced by digital equivalents which can be more accurate and flexible, and offer greater scope for more sophisticated configuration, parametrization and operation. This was accompanied by the fieldbus revolution which provided a networked (i.e. a single cable) means of communicating between control systems and field level instrumentation, eliminating hard-wiring.

Discrete manufacturing plants adopted these technologies fast. The more conservative process industries with their longer plant life cycles have been slower to adopt and analogue-based measurement and control still dominates. The growing use of Industrial Ethernet on the factory floor is pushing these trends still further, enabling manufacturing plants to be integrated more tightly within the enterprise, via the internet if necessary. Global competition has also increased demand for Reconfigurable Manufacturing Systems.

Automation tools

Engineers now can have numerical control over automated devices. The result has been a rapidly expanding range of applications and human activities. Computer-aided technologies (or CAx) now serve the basis for mathematical and organizational tools used to create complex systems. Notable examples of CAx include Computer-aided design (CAD software) and Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM software). The improved design, analysis, and manufacture of products enabled by CAx has been beneficial for industry.[4]

Information technology, together with industrial machinery and processes, can assist in the design, implementation, and monitoring of control systems. One example of an industrial control system is a programmable logic controller (PLC). PLCs are specialized hardened computers which are frequently used to synchronize the flow of inputs from (physical) sensors and events with the flow of outputs to actuators and events.[5]

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. Service personnel who monitor and control through HMIs can be called by different names. In industrial process and manufacturing environments, they are called operators or something similar. In boiler houses and central utilities departments they are called stationary engineers.[6]

Different types of automation tools exist:

Limitations to automation

Current limitations

Many roles for humans in industrial processes presently lie beyond the scope of automation. Human-level pattern recognition, language comprehension, 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. Overcoming these obstacles is a theorized path to post-scarcity economics.

Applications

Automated video surveillance

See main article: Surveillance. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) started the research and development of automated visual surveillance and monitoring (VSAM) program, between 1997 and 1999, and airborne video surveillance (AVS) programs, from 1998 to 2002. Currently, there is a major effort underway in the vision community to develop a fully automated tracking surveillance system. Automated video surveillance monitors people and vehicle in real time within a busy environment. Existing automated surveillance systems are based on the environment they are primarily designed to observe, i.e., indoor, outdoor or airborne, the amount of sensors that the automated system can handle and the mobility of sensor, i.e., stationary camera vs. mobile camera. The purpose of a surveillance system is to record properties and trajectories of objects in a given area, generate warnings or notify designated authority in case of occurrence of particular events.[7]

Automated highway systems

See main article: Automated highway systems.

As demands for safety and mobility have grown and technological possibilities have multiplied, interest in automation have grown. Seeking to accelerate the development and introduction of fully automated vehicles and highways, The United States Congress authorized more than $650 million over 6 years for intelligent transport systems (ITS) and demonstration projects in the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). Congress legislated in ISTEA that “the Secretary of Transportation shall develop an automated highway and vehicle prototype from which future fully automated intelligent vehicle-highway systems can be developed. Such development shall include research in human factors to ensure the success of the man-machine relationship. The goal of this program is to have the first fully automated highway roadway or an automated test track in operation by 1997. This system shall accommodate installation of equipment in new and existing motor vehicles." [ISTEA 1991, part B, Section 6054(b)].

Full automation commonly defined as requiring no control or very limited control by the driver; such automation would be accomplished through a combination of sensor, computer, and communications systems in vehicles and along the roadway. Fully automated driving would, in theory, allow closer vehicle spacing and higher speeds, which could enhance traffic capacity in places where additional road building is physically impossible, politically unacceptable, or prohibitively expensive. Automated controls also might enhance road safety by reducing the opportunity for driver error, which causes a large share of motor vehicle crashes. Other potential benefits include improved air quality (as a result of more-efficient traffic flows), increased fuel economy, and spin-off technologies generated during research and development related to automated highway systems.[8]

Automated manufacturing

See main article: Numerical control. Automated manufacturing refers to the application of automation to produce things in the factory way. Most of the advantages of the automation technology has its influence in the manufacture processes.

The main advantages of automated manufacturing are higher consistency and quality, reduced lead times, simplified production, reduced handling, improved work flow, and increased worker morale when a good implementation of the automation is made.

Home automation

See main article: Home automation. Home automation (also called domotics) designates an emerging practice of increased automation of household appliances and features in residential dwellings, particularly through electronic means that allow for things impracticable, overly expensive or simply not possible in recent past decades.

Industrial automation

See main article: Industrial automation. Industrial automation deals with the optimization of energy-efficient drive systems by precise measurement and control technologies. Nowadays energy efficiency in industrial processes are becoming more and more relevant. Semiconductor companies like Infineon Technologies are offering 8-bit microcontroller applications for example found in motor controls, general purpose pumps, fans, and ebikes to reduce energy consumption and thus increase efficiency. One of Infineon`s 8-bit product line found in industrial automation is the XC800 family.

Agriculture: Now that we’re moving towards automated orange-sortinghttp://www.gizmag.com/artificial-vision-orange-sorting/20184/ and autonomous tractorshttp://www.gizmag.com/automated-self-steering-tractor/19883/, the next step in automated agriculture is robotic strawberry pickershttp://www.gizmag.com/robotic-strawberry-pickers/20233/.

Agent-assisted Automation

See main article: Agent-assisted Automation. Agent-assisted Automation refers to automation used by call center agents to handle customer inquiries. There are two basic types: desktop automation and automated voice solutions. Desktop automation refers to software programming that makes it easier for the call center agent to work across multiple desktop tools. The automation would take the information entered into one tool and populate it across the others so it did not have to be entered more than once, for example. Automated voice solutions allow the agents to remain on the line while disclosures and other important information is provided to customers in the form of pre-recorded audio files. Specialized applications of these automated voice solutions enable the agents to process credit cards without ever seeing or hearing the credit card numbers or CVV codes[9]

The key benefit of agent-assisted automation is compliance and error-proofing. Agents are sometimes not fully trained or they forget or ignore key steps in the process. The use of automation ensures that what is supposed to happen on the call actually does, every time.

Relationship to unemployment

See main article: Relationship of automation to unemployment.

See also

External links

Notes and References

  1. News: 30 Of The Fastest Declining Occupations. The Boston Globe. 2008-03-24.
  2. Book: Rifkin, Jeremy. The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. Putnam Publishing Group. 1995. ISBN 0-87477-779-8. 66, 75.
  3. http://www.bma-automation.com/Prozessautomatisierung.2102.0.html?id=2102&L=1 Process automation, retrieved on 20.02.2010
  4. Web site: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6TYR-4C62R0B-2&_user=10&_coverDate=12%2F31%2F2004&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=browse&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=cc7a4e3e1cfdc05c7556848feaecf169,Engineers' CAx education—it's not only CAD.
  5. Web site: Automation - Definitions from Dictionary.com. dictionary.reference.com. 2008-04-22.
  6. http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos228.htm Stationary Engineers and Boiler Operators
  7. Javed, O, & Shah, M. (2008). Automated multi-camera surveillance. City of Publication: Springer-Verlag New York Inc.
  8. Menzies, Thomas. R. National Automated Highway System Research Program A review. 253. Washington D.C.: Transportation Research Board, 1998. 2-50.
  9. News: Adsit. Dennis. Error-proofing strategies for managing call center fraud. isixsigma.com. February 21, 2011.