Manufacturing Automation: Integrating the Future

From looms to robots, humanity is in constant pursuit of ways to enhance lives with machines.

Though the term “automation” was coined in the automotive manufacturing industry back in the 1940’s, it has become applicable to nearly every sector of the global business economy. Its definition is too-often misconstrued as the replacement of human workers with machines, though in actuality automation refers to the integration of machines into a self-governing system. As automation becomes more prevalent, human workers are challenged to assimilate their robot counterparts and expand their skillsets into realms beyond what has ever been required in their chosen professions. At the same time, businesses across the global manufacturing sector must thoughtfully adopt automation in a manner which creates maximum value for their organizations.

From Mechanization to Automation

Jacquard Loom
Jacquard Loom – Image credit: Northampton Silk Project

According to Mikell P. Groover, author of “Automation, Production Systems, and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing”, automation grew from mechanization, which is the replacement of human or animal power with mechanical power. While humans have always possessed a propensity for fashioning tools to enhance their work, mechanization is traceable to the days of the first Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 1700’s. Back then, the invention of the steam engine kicked off a series of discoveries including the use of feedback in the establishment of automated control systems, as well as the first programmable machine, the Jacquard loom.

Considering the predecessor to today’s digital computer, the Jacquard loom revolutionized textile manufacturing with its use of pre-made punch cards to control complex weaving patterns, automating a production process that was once almost entirely people-driven. In addition to the introduction of automated control, the Jacquard loom represented a turning point in the human-machine interaction, as the worker’s role elevated from hands-on operation to encompass more planning and oversight of the loom’s work.

The image to the left is a model of the Jacquard loom, on which you can see the punch cards hung in preparation for feeding into the top of the machine.

Progress in Automation Technology

During the 20th century, several technological developments drove the progress of automation technology across the spectrum of global industries:

  • The invention of the digital computer – Namely, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) in 1946, and the Universal Automated Computer in 1951.
  • Advances in data storage capability – Rapidly advancing from punch cards, modern-day storage consists of magnetic and optical forms of media whose capacities are dense yet rapidly readable.
  • Improvements in programming methods – Modern programming languages constantly evolve to allow for greater logic capabilities while becoming more accessible through simplicity and ease of use.
  • Development of enhanced feedback sensors – Essential to automatic feedback control systems, sensors make possible industrial tasks such as quality inspection and robot guidance.
  • Evolution of advanced mathematical theory of control systems – This theory includes negative feedback control, adaptive control, and artificial intelligence (AI).

As the above advances came to fruition, the global manufacturing industry underwent two additional industrial revolutions that, while less well-known as the first, were just as impactful. These are described by Bill Pollock, President and CEO of Optimation Technology Inc., as having occurred in the early and latter parts of the 20th century. The second industrial revolution was ushered in by the marriage of electricity with the assembly line, and the third took place as computers became common fixtures on factory floors.

Efficiency of Machine Technology
Efficiency of Machine Technology – Image credit: AIA

Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 is the popular term for the fourth industrial revolution, a time of technological disruption the manufacturing industry is currently undergoing. It is marked by the growing use of robotics, adoption of 3D printing capabilities, virtual reality’s leap from gaming rooms to factory floors, and the introduction of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). The IIoT, also known as the Industrial Internet, consists of interconnected devices that monitor, collect, exchange, analyze, and deliver data for the purpose of driving business decisions.

According to Pollock, Industry 4.0 is defined by:

  • Interoperability – connection of machines, devices, sensors, and humans through the IIoT
  • Information transparency – a collection of vast amounts of data from the manufacturing process
  • Technical assistance from AI – shifting the role of humans from operators to problem solvers
  • Decentralized decisions – autonomous systems capable of operating without human intervention

The growing use of automation is a binding thread throughout the fabric of Industry 4.0, as executives and workers in the manufacturing sector determine how to deploy and integrate automated systems in accordance with the above four principles.

The Future of Automation in Manufacturing

Findings in a report by McKinsey, a global research firm, reveal that “manufacturing is second, among industry sectors, only to accommodation and food services in terms of automation potential”. With this potential comes pressure to adopt automation as rapidly as possible, for the sake of remaining competitive in the era of Industry 4.0. Based on their research, McKinsey recommends company executives take into account three fundamental perspectives when deciding where and how much to automate:

1) what automation is currently making possible

2) likely possibilities as the technology evolves

3) factors besides technical feasibility

Adapting and enhancing the human workforce is key to realizing the full, long-term potential of manufacturing automation. Just as the Jacquard loom allowed a person to elevate their role above handling a shuttle and lifting threads into place, automation is poised to revolutionize the very definition of what it means to be employed in the manufacturing sector. McKinsey states, “Particularly in the highest-paid occupations, machines can augment human capabilities to a high degree and amplify the value of expertise by freeing employees to focus on work of higher value.” To support this optimistic assessment, companies must commit to managing near-constant change with a focus on fostering a culture of inclusiveness, and by providing training to help employees keep up with constantly changing technologies.

Though industrial revolutions are considered times of disruption, one need not view Industry 4.0 as a threat to the global workforce. A look back at our history reveals that technological enhancements, from steam engines to automated weaving machines to computer-controlled manufacturing systems, have not only enhanced the state of the global industry, but also the lives of humanity at large.

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