Image Credits: Factory_Easy/shutterstock.com
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.
The benefits of cost, efficiency, and safety are facilitated by the fact that properly designed machines and their automatic control systems are more reliable than error-prone humans. These five factors – cost, efficiency, safety, reliability, and progress – make automation important not only to industries but to humanity as a whole.
Industrial automation enables the replacement of large scale, low-skilled human labor with machines who can perform the same tasks reliably. This replacement saves manufacturers the numerous costs of employing humans (wages, contributions to pensions and social security, wages for managers and human resources departments, uniforms and personal protective equipment, training, and employment perks designed to attract good employees).
Of course, the cost/benefit analysis of replacing human labor with machine labor must include the additional costs incurred by installing machines such as their purchase, maintenance, and (often human) operation. While this is different for each situation, Ron Potter, Director of Robotics Technology for the Atalanta, Georgia company Factory Automation Systems, Inc. and Engelberger Robotics Award recipient, calculates an example $250,000 automation system application could generate $1,500,000 of additional cash flow within seven or eight years.
This cost reduction in industrial processes is important for two reasons: it enables manufacturers and other industrial companies to reduce prices for end-users and therefore increase market share, and it ensures those companies can remain competitive in industries where automation has taken hold.
The saving on human labor costs is one – albeit the most obvious – efficiency gain achieved through automation in industries. However, other efficiencies can be achieved by automatically controlling industrial processes. Reliable input and output (I/O) automation enables manufacturers to reduce wasted materials, millisecond-precise distributed control systems (DCSs) eliminate wasted time in the manufacturing process, and effective Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) computer architectures can dramatically decrease the risk of wasteful system failures and errors.
As well as the positive impact that increased efficiency can have on manufacturers’ financial costs (and therefore profits), efficiency is important to industry because it reduces the environmental costs of production. Fewer natural resources are consumed in the manufacturing process, fewer resources are wasted, and factories can consume less energy. The US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy reported in 2017 that reliably automating controls in commercial buildings like factories could cut their energy consumption by approximately 29%.
This increase in efficiency is important for industries not only to continue to drive down costs and maintain competitiveness but also to reduce the harmful impact of production on the planet which would in the long term render those profits useless and in the short term drive away environmental-conscious consumers.
Reliable machines are much better placed than error-prone humans to perform industrial occupations that could be risking their health or cause potential injury. Numerous industrial processes involve extremely high temperatures, fast-moving machine parts, hazardous chemicals or repetitive, non-ergonomic tasks.
The adoption of automation in industries correlates with a sharp decline in worker injury and illness. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded a 44% decrease in total nonfatal occupational injury and illness incidence rates between 2003 and 2017, while popular science writer Steven Pinker calculates in Enlightenment Now that work-related fatalities fell 95% from 61 workers per 100,000 in 1913 to 3.2 workers per 100,00 in 2015.
The importance of increased safety for workers as a result of reliable industrial automation should be self-evident extends, like the importance of increased efficiency, beyond manufacturers’ profits to their moral obligations to people and the planet.
Progress and Reliability
Using reliable machines to automatically control industrial processes is important in general, as well as in the specifics of cost, efficiency, and safety. Reliability leads to improved consistency, robustness, and accuracy which enables the other important benefits. It also enables human mental labor to be freed to drive forward other innovations and technological progress. This is not only important for industries, but humanity as a whole. Moreover, with machine-learning and artificial intelligence arising from and taking over more sections of industrial automation, this progress can be expected to develop in the future at an exponential pace.