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Automation is the means by which machines are created and employed to perform tasks that used to be carried out by humans. The process involves replacing the mental and manual labor of humans with various aspects of technology and is necessarily interdisciplinary – applying innovations and discoveries from fields as diverse as materials science, robotics, computing, engineering, logistics, and management.
An example of automation is the home thermostat, which replaces the tasks of measuring and recording temperature, adjusting the home’s furnace and radiators, and monitoring the new temperature so that the humans in the home only need to install the device and instruct it to maintain their ideal temperature. Specifically, automation provides a system of automatic control in almost any process (set of tasks) that frees human labor – and the costs, inefficiencies, and potential for human error that go along with it – from the process.
Application Areas for Industrial Automation
Industrial automation is the application of automatic control to large scale processes and systems (sets of processes) such as factories, telephone switchboards, ships, and stock exchanges. In other words, industrial automation is the means by which machines are created and employed to automatically control parts of industries cheaper, more efficiently and safer than humans could.
Since the early days of industrial automation in the mid-twentieth century – when General Motors established the world’s first automation department in 1947 – more and more control of industrial systems and processes has been handed over to machines. This has been enabled by numerous innovations and their application by designers and engineers.
Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs)
Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) were first introduced in 1968 by Bedford Associates in response to a request for proposals from GM Hydramatic, a division of General Motors, and are still predominantly used in the automotive industry today. PLCs are rugged digital computers used to control manufacturing processes containing up to thousands of inputs outputs (I/Os). Unlike the systems of relays, cam timers, drum sequencers and dedicated closed-loop controllers which preceded them in the automotive industry, PLCs did not require an annual, expensive and extensive rewiring process. Their ruggedization means that PLCs are able to withstand the physical demands of a shop-floor environment, and their programmable logic means that non-specialists are able to use and monitor them.
Distributed Control System (DCS)
The distributed control system (DCS) puts automatic controllers at various stages in a manufacturing process and gives a human or machine operator the ability to monitor and calibrate the multiple tasks in the process efficiently. A DCS gains reliability due to the distribution of numerous controllers throughout the system, meaning that the failure of one task does not necessarily cause the entire process to halt. The DCS innovation was made possible by the development and availability of microcomputers and microprocessors, and 1975 saw the first DCSs introduced by Honeywell in the US (the TDC 2000) and Yokogawa in Japan (the CENTUM).
Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)
Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) is a computer architecture that enables operators to access and monitor numerous local automatic control systems remotely, even if those systems are produced by different manufacturers or operate on different sites. Similar in function to DCSs, SCADAs differ by their multiple ways of interfacing with the industrial process. SCADAs can simultaneously interface with and supervise remote terminal units (RTUs), which are I/Os with embedded control capabilities, and PLCs. SCADAs incorporate a Human Machine Interface (HMI) which enables the human operator in the control room to monitor and base decisions on the data acquired by RTUs and PLCs in the plant. Today, SCADA systems utilize web browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox to create an intuitive HMI that operators can use remotely on their smartphone or tablet.
Industrial automation – the automatic control of tasks, processes, and systems of manufacturing and industry – is set to create efficiencies in industries exponentially with the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Machines can now automate the design and manufacture of ever more complicated machines, removing the risks of human labor (cost, efficiency, and error) from industrial processes. Indeed, lights-out manufacturing and the fully dark factory – imagined in 1955 by the science fiction writer Philip K Dick in his short story, Autofac – may be just a few iterations of machine-led innovation away.