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The Nuts and Bolts of Industrial Automation

October 18, 2019

The face of human labor wears an ever-shifting mask, constantly changing to the tune of the social forces that shape our lives.

Industrial automation has proven to be far and away one of the most notable and disruptive types of robotics of our lifetimes. Not only has the mechanization of industrial processes generating unprecedented wealth and increased production, but it has led to the decline of traditional manufacturing jobs, formerly the backbone of the American working class, as more and more roles are able to be completed with

Understanding the mechanical processes as well as the social implications of industrial automation is a crucial element for making the best strategic decisions moving forward regard.

What is industrial automation?

Industrial automation refers to the process of using logical programming commands and advanced robotics to automatically complete any number of tasks. This can be as simple as a set of arms that puts a windshield onto a car to a machine advanced enough to entire systems of robots.

Essentially, it advances the mechanization of industry that has been aiding humanity in their labor since the invention of the wheel to a new high: a form that, in some instances, has eliminated the need for direct human activity entirely.

Of course, even a fully industrialized workshop needs high-trained maintenance personnel. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the advent of automation has vastly marginalized human labour in most industrial sectors.

How does an industrial automation system work?

While the concept of machines executing simple tasks is fairly simple to understand, the nuances of the mechanization of production capabilities is far more complex. Industrial automation systems are based on a hierarchical structure that organize the components of the production process. This might seem confusing at first, but the parallels to traditional business organization, with the top level corresponding to C-suite executives and the lower level being associates who actually execute on the day-to-day work of the company.

How Industrial Automation Systems WorkImage courtesy of electricaltechnology.org

The lowest segment, the field level, is where the physical action of the automation system takes place. In addition to actuating the desired task, this level of the hierarchy is also responsible for collecting data through a variety of sensors that are then transferred up the chain to more complex systems for interpretation.

The control level is responsible for collecting and interpreting the data given by the field level in order to direct the actuators on how best to complete their respective tasks. Beyond this, the supervising and production control level is responsible for monitoring the operations of the facility as a whole, giving contextualizing information to the various control level machines as to how best direct their actuators.

Finally, the information level is the most macroscopic level of the hierarchy and is what manages the entire automation system. It is responsible for planning production, analyzing customer and market data, and other commercial activities. It is also the core information process by which data is sent between different levels of the industrial automation hierarchy.

TIP: Confused by the robotics jargon? Check out our guide on essential robotics terms to help clear the air!

Types of industrial automation

Generally speaking, there are three distinct kinds of industrial automation: fixed, programmable, and flexible automation.

types of industrial automation

Fixed automation

Fixed automation is when a machine is deployed in order to perform one simple, repetitive tasks with the ultimate goal being a high velocity of output. An example of this would be a conveyer belt or sawmill. These machines are so basic that you might not even recognize them as being a part of the overall trend of industrial automation, yet they served as the forerunners for the more complex machines we see dominating the factory floors today.

Programmable automation

Programmable automation is where commands are pre-programmed into a machine and then executed along a set schedule. While it is possible to change the programming of these machines to execute different tasks, it requires an immense amount of setup to change an entire system of these robots. Traditional industrial robots would fall into this category. This, in many ways, encapsulates what most people will think of when they discuss industrial automation.

Flexible automation

Finally, flexible automation is a more advanced version of programmable automation, wherein the machines can be adapted to any number of tasks in real time via code delivered by human operators. This type of automation requires skilled human workers to implement changes to the machinery through coding skills. So while it offers the most customization, it also requires the most work to maintain.

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Impact of industrial automation

While the full scope of the impact of automation far exceeds the scope of this article, it is still necessary to touch on the specifics of how it has molded our current world in order to understand the full picture of the changing landscape of contemporary work. Its impact is so widely felt that it’s often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution.

impact of industrial automationImage courtesy of christianmanrique.com

Efficiencies in productivity and output

Industrial automation, undoubtedly, has done wonders for the productivity and output of most industrial facilities. Not only has the advent of this new mode of production drastically reduced the development lifecycle for new products, it has also allowed many companies to save on their resource consumption through a greater overall degree of efficiency. It has also eliminated the need to expose human workers to unsafe and unpleasant conditions as well as helping to test new products or processes with miniscule margin of error.

Social and labor implications

However, it must be remarked that the development of any new social process does not come without some level of social dislocation. For example, the American job market has had a terrible time adjusting to the new realities of labor demand that have been brought on by industrial automation.

Further, the incessant drive for short term profit has fused automation and globalization in several nasty ways, not the least of which has been the outsourcing of many of the jobs that once served as the financial spine of the middle class. This, coupled with the increase of production and virtually elimination of labor costs has lead to staggering wealth gaps in most countries across the globe. Possible solutions to this social dislocation have been suggested such as a robot tax that could be used to offer more social service programs for an increasingly displaced workforce while offsetting the decline in income tax revenue for the governments of many industrialized states. 

The march of progress

Regardless of the shifting landscape of the world of work, one thing is for certain: industrial automation is here to stay. The fact of the matter is that nearly 60% of all companies employ automation in some form or another, and that trend is only growing. Make sure you’re up to speed with the latest trends in order to keep your business agile and on top of the game.

Interested in learning about how robotics is revolutionizing more than just factory work? Read about the rise of telepresence robots now!

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