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Industrial Automation: A Brief History of Manufacturing Application & The Current State and Future Outlook

industrial automation

Editor’s Note: If you are a regular reader of the Cerasis blog, you know that we are a third party logistics company who specializes in transportation management through technology (a web based transportation management system) and managed transportation services to include freight accounting (payment, auditing, invoice consolidation), freight claims, vendor inbound compliance programs, reverse logistics (returns), carrier relations (negotiate great rates for shipping, maintain relationships/rates), and eCommerce freight shipping technology solutions for those who have eCommerce. We empower shippers (manufacturers and distributors mostly in the industrial space) with technology and automation tools to make the shipper more efficient. That is why we also have an interest in not only talking about manufacturing trends and issues, as our customers are manufacturers, but about such great technologies as industrial automation. Today’s post will focus on the brief history of Industrial Automation, what is Industrial Automation, the current state, and the near future of what industrial automation holds. A brief of this post first was featured as a guest blog on the Cisco-Eagle blog

With the technology and automation available to us today, the opportunities to share information are unlimited. The industry realizes that and is working together to figure out how to communicate electronically with each other.

Industrial Automation has a few key segments. In the 1970’s, the original DCS was developed in the 1970’s by a team of engineers at Honeywell, and the first PLC was the brainchild of inventor Dick Morley and others. Several innovative startups developed HMI software for PLCs and indusrial I/O. Innovative sensors and actuators came from some key companies. In a fragmented business, most innovators get stuck at growth plateuas and get bought out. But some continue to generate independent growth and success.

Trace the roots of all significant automation business segments and you’ll find key people and innovations. Industrial instrumentation and controls has always been a hotbed of new products – improved sensors, amplifiers, displays, recorders, control elements, valves, actuators and other widgets and gismos. But the markets are relatively small, specialized and fragmented, and it’s rare that any significant volume results directly from individual products. This model of business is greatly seen in technical sales as well.

Many industrial automation companies were founded with innovative developments for niche applications. The target customers were usually local end-users who provided the opportunity to test new ideas, usually because of specific unmet needs. The successful startups expanded their products and markets beyond initially narrow applications and geographies, depending on the real value of the innovation, and also whether or not the founder was able to hire suitable management, sales & marketing leaders to grow the company beyond the initial entrepreneurial stages.

Since automation is such a fragmented business, all the larger (multi-billion $) companies are mostly a conglomeration of products and services; each product segment generates relatively small volume, but lumped together they form sizable businesses.

What is Industrial Automation?

According to Wikipedia automation is:

Automation or automatic control, is the use of various control systems for operating equipment such as machinery, processes in factories, boilers and heat treating ovens, switching in telephone networks, steering and stabilization of ships, aircraft and other applications with minimal or reduced human intervention. Some processes have been completely automated.

The term automation, inspired by the earlier word automatic (coming from automaton), was not widely used before 1947, when General Motors established the automation department. It was during this time that industry was rapidly adopting feedback controllers, which were introduced in the 1930s.

Automation has been achieved by various means including mechanical, hydraulic, pneumatic, electrical, electronic and computers, usually in combination. Complicated systems, such as modern factories, airplanes and ships typically use all these combined techniques.

Industrial engineers have envisioned fully automated factories since at least the middle of the 20th century. But the real race to automate manufacturing can be said to have begun in the 1980s, when US car manufacturers came up with the vision of “lights-out” manufacturing. The idea was to beat their rivals by automating the factories to such an extent that the entire manufacturing process could be left to robots. To a great extent, it has remained only a vision so far.

What is Industrial Automation in Manufacturing?

Industrial automation in manufacturing is the use of “intelligent” machines in factories so that manufacturing processes can be carried out with minimal human intervention. It involves the application of various control systems to enable operating equipment to carry out on their own, with little human intervention, tasks that require speed, endurance and precision.

Industrial automation can be achieved by several different means, including mechanical, electrical, electronic, hydraulic, pneumatic, and computers. Usually, two or more of these means are used in combination. Today’s state-of-the-art factories, ships, and airplanes combine all of these techniques.

The main benefits of manufacturing automation include leaner operation processes that require less energy, less material, and reduced labor waste. These can lead to improvements in quality, accuracy, and precision. The downsides include high costs of R&D and installation of equipment.

What is the Current State of Industrial Automation in Manufacturing?

industrial automation roboticsAlthough “lights-out” manufacturing, a concept in which the lights can be switched off leaving everything to the robots, is still a dream, remarkable progress has been made since the 1980s. Many repetitive and high precision work in large factories, such as in car assembly lines, have been taken over by industrial robots.

Today’s industrial robots have high computing capabilities, vastly improved vision systems, and increasing operational degrees of freedom. However, they are limited to operating in highly structured environments and, to a large extent, still need to be controlled by humans. They are also too specialized and inflexible for the use of small and medium industries. Therefore, they can essentially be considered tools of long production runs and large manufacturers.

With the rapid development and proliferation of microcomputer and software technologies, automation in manufacturing is almost totally dependent on the capabilities of computers and software to automate, optimize and integrate the various components of the manufacturing system. Due to this dependence, automation in manufacturing is called computer integrated manufacturing.

What is the Future of Industrial Automation?

Although industrial automation in manufacturing in not without its detractors (such as an unsubstantiated claim that it will lead to mass unemployment), its future looks very bright. Industrial robots of the future will be multi-functional so that the same machine can be put to several different uses. They will have many capabilities associated with human workers, such as the ability to make decisions and to work autonomously. They will also have self-diagnostic and predictive maintenance capabilities.

Thanks to industrial automation of manufacturing, the factory of the future will be more efficient in the utilization of energy, raw material and human resources. Also, contrary to popular belief, the experience so far has shown that automation will not cause mass unemployment. On the contrary, the mass use of robots will create more jobs. Humans and robots will work together to create a more efficient and productive workspace.