Automation

Factory_Automation_Robotics_Palettizing_BreadAutomation is the use of control systems (such as numerical control, programmable logic control, and other industrial control systems), in concert with other applications of information technology (such as computer-aided technologies [CAD, CAM, CAx]), 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.

Impact

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 genesseracells, 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 textilemachine 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.

Current emphasis

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.

Advantages and disadvantages

The main advantage of automation are:

  • Replacing human operators in tedious tasks.
  • Replacing humans in tasks that should be done in dangerous environments (i.e. Fire, space, volcanoes, nuclear facilities, under the water, etc)
  • Making task that are beyond the human capabilities such as handle too heavy loads, too large objects, too hot or too cold sustances or the requirement to make things too fast or too slow.
  • Economy improvement. Sometimes and some kinds of automation implies improves in economy of enterprises, society or most of humankind. For example, when an enterprise that has invested in automation technology recovers its investment; when a state or country increases its income due to automation like Germany or Japan in the XX Century or when the humankind can use the internet which in turn use satellites and other automated engines.

The main disadvantages of automation are:

  • Technology limits. Nowadays technology is not able to automatizate all the desired tasks.
  • Initial costs are relative high. The automation of a new product required a huge initial investment in comparison with the unit cost of the product, although the cost of automation is spread in many product batches. The automation of a Plant required a great initial investment too, although this cost is spread in the products to be produced.

Controversial factors

  • Unemployment. It is commonly thought that automation implies unemployment due to the fact that the work of a human being is replaced in part or completely by a machine. Nevertheless, the unemployment is caused by the economical politics of the administration like dismissing the workers instead of changing their tasks. Since the general economical policies of most of the industrial plants are to dismiss people, nowadays automation implies unemployment. In different scenarios without workers, automation implies more free time instead of unemployment like the case with the automatic washing machine at home. Automation does not imply unemployment when it makes tasks unimaginable without automation such as exploring mars with theSojourner or when the economy is fully adapted to an automated technology as with the Telephone switchboard.
  • 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.
  • Human being replacement. In the future there is a possibility that the Artificial intelligence could replace and improve a human brain and the robots would become not only fully automated but fully autonomous from the human beings (Technological singularity)

Automation tools

Different types of automation tools exist:

Automated manufacturing

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 advantage of the automated manufacturing are: more quality, reduce the lead times, simplification of production, reduce handling, improve work flow and increase the moral of workers when a good implementation of the automation is made.

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