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Automation (ancient Greek: = self dictated), roboticization or industrial automation or numerical control is the use of control systems such as computers to control industrial machinery and processes, replacing human operators. In the scope of industrialization, it 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.
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.
There are still many jobs which are in no immediate danger of automation. No device has been invented which can match the human eye for accuracy and precision in many tasks; nor the human ear. Even the admittedly handicapped human is able to identify and distinguish among far more scents than any automated device. Human pattern recognition, language recognition, and language production ability is well beyond anything currently envisioned by automation engineers.
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. (It was these devices that were feared to be vulnerable to the "Y2K bug", with such potentially dire consequences, since they are now so ubiquitous throughout the industrial world.)
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.
A separate form of automation involving computers is test automation, where computer-controlled automated test equipment is programmed to simulate human testers in manually testing an application. This is often accomplished by using test automation tools to generate special scripts (written as computer programs) that direct the automated test equipment in exactly what to do in order to accomplish the tests
Another separate field of automation is Home automation. This type of automation emerged in the early 1990s. This type of automation is concerned with the controls of everything in a house, from lights and blinds through security and access system to heating, cooling, water supply and home theater systems. A whole house system will gather and integrate all of these separate subsystems into one integrated system that can be managed from a central display panel, a remote control or even over the Internet from a another physical location.
A more common form of automation is more related to office automation is software-automation, where a computer by means of macro recorder software records the sequence of user actions (mouse and keyboard) as a macro for playback at a later time.
Social issues of automation
Automation raises several important social issues. Among them is automation's impact on employment. Indeed, the Luddites were a social movement of English textile workers in the early 1800s who protested against Jacquard's automated weaving looms— often by destroying such textile machines— that they felt threatened their jobs. Since then, the term luddite has come to be applied freely to anyone who is against any advance of technology.
Some argue automation leads to higher employment. One author made the following case. When automation was first introduced, it caused widespread fear. It was thought that the displacement of human workers by computerized systems would lead to severe unemployment. In fact, the opposite has often been true, e.g., the freeing up of the labor force allowed more people to enter higher skilled jobs, which are typically higher paying. One odd side effect of this shift is that "unskilled labor" now benefits in many "first-world" nations, because fewer people are available to fill such jobs.
Some argue the reverse, at least in the long term. They argue that automation has only just begun and short-term conditions might partially obscure its long-term impact. Many manufacturing jobs left the United States during the early 1990s, but a one-time massive increase in IT jobs (which are only now being outsourced), at the same time, offset this.
It appears that automation does 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 of most people in the world (where political factors have not muddied the picture) has increased dramatically. What role automation has played in these changes has not been well studied.
One irony is that in recent years, outsourcing has been blamed for the loss of jobs in which automation is the more likely culprit. This argument is supported by the fact that in the U.S., the number of insourced jobs is increasing at a greater rate than those outsourced. Further, the rate of decline in U.S. manufacturing employment is no greater than the worldwide average: 11 percent between 1995 and 2002. In the same period, China, which has been frequently criticized for "stealing" American manufacturing jobs, lost 15 million manufacturing jobs of its own (about 15% of its total), compared with 2 million lost in the U.S..
Millions of human telephone operators and answerers, throughout the world, have been replaced wholly (or almost wholly) by automated telephone switchboards and answering machines (not by Indian or Chinese workers). Thousands of medical researchers have been replaced in many medical tasks from 'primary' screeners in electrocardiography or radiography, to laboratory analyses of human genes, sera, cells, and tissues by automated systems. Even physicians have been partly replaced by remote, automated robots and by highly sophisticated surgical robots that allow them to perform remotely and at levels of accuracy and precision otherwise not normally possible for the average physician. See Robot doctors and Surgical robots.
Current emphases in automation
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.
Safety issues of Industrial Automation
One safety issue with automation is that while it is often viewed as a way to minimize human error in a system, increasing the degree and levels of automation also increases the consequences of error. For example, The Three Mile Island nuclear event was largely due to over-reliance on "automated safety" systems. Unfortunately, in the event, the designers had never anticipated the actual failure mode which occurred, so both the "automated safety" systems and their human overseers were inundated with vast amounts of largely irrelevant information. With automation we have machines designed by (fallible) people with high levels of expertise, which operate at speeds well beyond human ability to react, being operated by people with relatively more limited education (or other failings, as in the Bhopal disaster or Chernobyl disaster). Ultimately, with increasing levels of automation over ever larger domains of activities, when something goes wrong the consequences rapidly approach the catastrophic. This is true for all complex systems however, and one of the major goals of safety engineering for nuclear reactors, for example, is to make safety mechanisms as simple and as foolproof as possible (see Safety engineering and passive safety).
Different types of automation tools exists:
- ANN - Artificial neural network
- DCS - Distributed Control System
- HMI - Human Machine Interface
- LIMS - Laboratory Information Management System
- MES - Manufacturing Execution System
- PAC - Programmable automation controller
- PLC - Programmable Logic Controller
- SCADA - Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition
A list of automation products used in the IT field (past and present):
- AutoMate By Network Automation
- Optinuity C2O
- Data Palette
- GridApp Systems Clarity - Database Automation
- QA Load
- QA Run by Compuware
- QuickTest Professional (QTP)
- Rational Robot
- RepliWeb, Inc - Automated File Replication
- Rockwell Automation
- SICK.com SICK Sensor Intelligence
- TestPartner by Compuware
- IEEE Transactions on Automation Science and Engineering
- Wireless Networks for Industrial Automation 2nd Edition
- Jeremy Rifkin: The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era
- Ramin Ramtin: Capitalism and Automation - Revolution in Technology and Capitalist Breakdown. Pluto Press, London, Concord Mass. 1991
- SME Automated Manufacturing & Assembly Community
- Automation Engineering | Systems for Machine Automation - Olympus Controls
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