For the last fifty to sixty years, computers have helped move manufacturing into a more productive, streamlined process through automation. Automation, or industrial automation, involves the use of computers to control industrial machinery and their processes.
Top Advantages of Industrial Automation
Automation’s key advantage is increasing productivity in facilities. Labor reduction, repeatability, waste reduction, enhanced quality control, and integration with existing business systems give companies an advantage by reducing long-term costs, which increases product output and revenue. Disadvantages include high initial costs in purchasing technology and increases in maintenance costs.
For decades, automation has been used in industry to produce simple objects. However, the combination of computers and existing technology in the mid-20th century allowed more complex tasks to be completed in much faster times.
Programmable Logic Controllers
With the introduction of PLCs (programmable logic controllers), industrial automation effectively modernized how manufacturing, as well as some food production, was handled. PLCs addressed the concern that computer-controlled machinery needed to have the right amount of power, right price, and right size to be effective. PLCs transmit the flow of information and inputs from sensors and events to outputs like actuators and events. The information flow is controlled, ultimately, by a human worker through HMIs, or human-machine interfaces. HMIs can monitor measurements in temperature, pressure, etc.
Automation can also be used in the testing of software applications through a process called test automation. In this process, computers are programmed with special scripts, usually computer programs, to run the same tests on software that a human would have to do manually. Test automation provides many of the same advantages as industrial automation including labor reduction, repeatability, and waste reduction.
Reactions to Industrial Automation
While labor reduction is considered to be advantageous for a company, many workers felt threatened when automation was first introduced. The fear that machines and computers would take the place of human labor drove their fear.
In fact, reducing "unskilled labor" can be beneficial to workers. Automation presents opportunities for workers who previously held "unskilled" positions to pursue more challenging jobs that often provide higher wages. With those workers pursuing other jobs, the remaining "unskilled" positions become more valuable to companies, especially in industrialized nations, and result in these jobs having higher wages.