INTRODUCTION TO AUTOMATION
When talking about Service Automation, we should first talk about what led us to the idea of automating services. Automation isn’t a new concept and it dates back centuries to when humans invented basic automating tools like pulleys to make working easier. Automation is the use of various control systems for operating equipment such as machinery, processes in factories, steering of vehicles, aircraft, ships, and other applications.
Automation technology has matured to a point where a number of other technologies have emerged from it. For example, service automation and artificial intelligence. Advanced robotics is a specialised branch of automation in which automated machine possess certain levels of artificial intelligence in order to enable increased workforce capabilities or task functions.
Put simply, industrial robots and automated machinery are typically used to replace human workers in factory operations.
Automation provides benefits to almost every industry. Some examples are listed:
- Manufacturing, including food and pharmaceutical, chemical and petroleum, pulp and paper
- Transportation, including automotive, aerospace, and rail
- Utilities, including water and wastewater, oil and gas, electric power, and telecommunications
- Military and civil defence
- Facility operations, including security, environmental control, energy management, safety, and other construction automation
- And many others
This article aims to cover the fundamentals of automation, its historical development, principles, and applications in manufacturing and service industries.
WHAT IS AUTOMATION?
Automation is the technology by which a process or procedure is performed with minimal human interference through the use of technological or mechanical devices. It is the technique of making a process or a system operate automatically. Automation crosses all functions within almost every industry from installation, maintenance, manufacturing, marketing, sales, medicine, design, procurement, management, etc. Automation has revolutionised those areas in which it has been introduced, and there is scarcely an aspect of modern life that has been unaffected by it.
Figure 1: Many different processes in factories have been completely automated in order to increase efficiency, productivity, and reduce workplace accidents.
Automation can be achieved by several different means including mechanical, electrical, electronic devices and computers, and hydraulic systems. Industries that involve very complicated systems such as modern factories, aircrafts and ships often use a combination of different automation techniques in order to maximise their process efficiencies.
Automation is a broad range of technologies that includes robotics and expert systems, telemetry and communications, electro-optics, Cybersecurity, process measurement and control, sensors, wireless applications, systems integration, test measurement, and more. Industrial automation in manufacturing entails the use of machines to carry out manufacturing processes with levels of speed, stamina, accuracy, and consistency with capabilities of that which is beyond the human worker.
The main benefits of automating processes in manufacturing include reduced production cost, reduced waste, improved quality and reliability, and drastically reduced workplace-related accidents.
THE HISTORY OF AUTOMATION
Nowadays many associate the term ‘automation’ with advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotics. They aren’t wrong. However, the history of automation technology goes back centuries and is much deeper than just these versions of automation that appeared in the last two or three decades. The idea of automation isn’t necessarily a modern one as the theory behind utilising automation technology dates back to hundreds of years ago but has only recently begun to become more task-specific and refined to fit certain industries.
The earliest known mention of automation can be credited to Homer’s “The Iliad”. Towards the end of the first book, Homer presents the tale of Hephaestus. Representing the Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, metals, fire, volcanos, artisans and sculptors, Hephaestus was tasked with manufacturing all of the weaponry needed for the gods of Mount Olympus. To help himself with this task, he created automatons. These automatons were self-operating machines forged from metal. They helped Hephaestus with his task and made it possible for him to complete the required equipment for the gods. Although this tale is likely just a tale, its ancient mention proves that the idea of automation has been around for a long time.
For many centuries there has been evidence of different civilisations attempting to use forms of automation to solve everyday problems they faced. However, automation didn’t really become popular until the Industrial Revolution. After this period, there was a massive demand for basic things like cotton, textiles, paper, household items which meant there needed to be drastic changes in the production process to enable to mass-production of items. With an immense amount of emphasis placed on extreme efficiency and production, innovations in automation allowed for the mechanised production of textiles and other things.
Figure 2: The Bridgewater Foundry was one of the earliest examples of a modern factory layout. This factory was designed for easy material handling, with cranes to handle the heavy lifting, and a railway through the building to help carry materials inside.
In 1806, the first paper-making machine was invented. Before this invention, industries could not satisfy the demands of developing modern society for large quantities of printing and writing material. This paper-making machine allowed for an industrialised version of the historical process of hand paper-making. This industrial revolution also saw other significant innovations such as the development of the transportation and communication industry, leading to the increased globalisation of companies, products, and immigration of workforces.
In 1913, Henry Ford installed the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an entire car. This innovation reduced the time it took to build a car from more than twelve hours to less than three. Ford was already selling relatively inexpensive cars but he wanted to reduce the cost even further. To do this, he has to completely change the production process in order to maximise efficiency. While producing the Model T automobile, the streamlining process grew more sophisticated and in order to make it easier, he broke the production process into 84 steps. In addition to this, they trained each worker to specialise in just one step. Ford’s assembly line was inspired by the continuous-flow production methods used by flour mills, breweries, canneries and industrial bakeries.
Overall, automation has a rich history that spans over many centuries. The main uses of automation prior to the 20th and 21st century have been in industrial fields, and have only more recently been integrated into the IT industry. The drivers of all automation technology, however, have always been similar. With industrial automation, the goal was always clear: to improve the efficiency of manufacturing a variety of items.
With IT automation, the goal is to improve efficiency by creating a process that is self-sufficient and replaces an IT worker’s manual labor in data centers and cloud deployments. The parallels are clear, and they show why automation will always be prevalent in society.
Innovating things to reduce the burden on humans, increase business productivity and make our lives easier in terms of reducing manual labor is something that has been important to us for centuries, and will continue to make its impact in the future.