What is automation really? We will try and explain the term and its wider and specific meaning in today’s various industries.
We are surrounded by automated processes. Automation is defined as a technology that creates a process or an action, with minimal human intervention (hands-free). Command and control systems allow us to operate machines and equipment, factories and plants, vehicles and aircrafts, application and robots – with minimal human intervention.
An example for a domestic automation system we all know is the boiler’s thermostat. Using the thermostat, the heat level is well regulated for the shower without us having to turn it on manually.
Automation systems can be very simple (on/off) but also very complex – control using a software that operates dozens of algorithms that contain countless variables.
Another example for a common automation is the car’s automatic transmission. Instead of the driver having to operate the clutch paddle and shift the gears with its hands while driving, adjusting it to the speed and road conditions, the automatic system manages these actions on its own.
Almost every automated system starts with a controller, which measures various values and decides whether an action should be taken. Values could be temperature, speed, height, pressure, angle, humidity, voltage, current, etc.
The most important term to understand the process is automatic “control loop”. In such a loop, the system works to keep itself in an optimal predetermined state, without digressing from it. Based on negative feedback that is constantly fed into the system (error or deviation messages), the system “corrects” itself to stay in the desired range. Automation systems can be mechanical, hydraulic, pneumatic, electric, electronic or computerized.
An automated system can save many resources: money, manpower, time, accidents, etc. In many cases, certain process could not be performed without automated systems since humans are incapable of performing them, for various reasons. Automation dramatically improves quality assurance, speed and efficiency of various manufacturing systems, including transportation and computerizing ones.
While automation systems are designed to replace humans in many industrial roles, these processes also produce new roles of command, management, control, maintenance and development. The term “automation”, in its linguistic sense, did not exist in western culture until after World War II, at around 1947. The first automation department was established at the American automobile Ford company.
The heart of the automation revolution is a closed system of feedback controllers, aided by advanced sensors, to perform what is called an ongoing “control feedback”. This control constantly calculates to maintain a measured variable within the predetermined range. For example, an automatic alarm system sends an alert each time one of its sensors informs it on irregular parameters, such as noises, pressures, movement or disturbance.
Supercomputers currently perform most of the automation system around the world. A good example of that are the ATM machines and other computerized bank terminals that perform millions of actions that used to be manual and needed flesh and blood bankers. In recent years, digital automation systems are also replacing the restaurants and cafés order takers, as well as charge your credit card or even take cash.
Industrial robots have a main role in mechanized automation systems around the world. Complex and quickly assembled manufacturing processes are based on robotic arms to carry out precise actions for producing technological products that require extreme skill, which humans cannot perform anyway. Nowadays, an industrial robot can work for 24 hours without any errors. There are over 2 million industrial robots currently being used around the world.
In the future, autonomous cars would drive on their own, without needing human intervention. It is an automation system on wheels. There are many automation systems operating in each autonomous vehicle, working together to replace the driver. It is however cheaper to operate a human driver than an autonomous vehicle, in some cases, but when the driver is unable to perform its duty (tired, sick, etc.) an automated system is required to step in.
Combining innovative AI technologies, the future automation systems would allow machines to learn the human labor skills, increasing their ability to take over manpower. This change will allow employees to focus on special abilities that cannot be performed by robots, software or hardware.