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What is Industrial Automation?

Industrial automation is the use of data-driven control systems, whether computers, process controllers or robots, to operate industrial processes or machinery in a way that reduces the need for human action. 

Industrial automation has its roots in a variety of applications, but one function in particular was the development of CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines for high-precision aerospace manufacturing in the United States during World War II. These machines were operated by some of the first industrial computing systems, but ultimately still required a high degree of human input until the 1950s when they became more fully automated.

Today, Industrial Automation is found in a variety of systems. These can be applied as supervisory control and data acquisition systems, distributed control systems or programmable logistic controllers. These kinds of solutions allow for large amounts of materials to be handled in a consistent and predictable way, which ultimately means that they have been most beneficial to firms processing solutions like chemicals, pulp and paper, oil and gas or other raw materials.

With the advent of Industry 4.0 practices and an increased focus on leveraging data in operations in the same way many consumer technology companies already have, industrial automation systems have done more to include peripheral data and edge processing in order to optimize operations in real-time based on a variety of outputs. 

Why is Industrial Automation Important?

Industrial automation is critical not just because it’s productive, but because the advent of computerization in the industrial space finally allowed many manufacturers to replace humans for the most repetitive, laborious of tasks and add more value to their production lines than ever before.

With the advent of mechanized industry, primarily in the 19th century, human beings were called upon to operate inordinately more powerful industrial machines than ever before. The power of these machines ultimately, however, made humans more servant than master to them – themes which were often explored in early 20th century art like Fritz Laing’s seminal film “Metropolis”. These same themes were often avoided by acolytes of philosophies like Taylorism, where each and every human action in industrial space was indefinitely repeated and – inevitably – required to be done at an ever higher rate of productivity.

With the advent of industrial automation, less human control was required for still basic industrial manufacturing tasks. This ultimately displaced some jobs, but it also made the remaining work for humans more productive, creative and rewarding than the mundane industrial jobs of old. 

In many ways, this automation enabled both the increase in knowledge economy and white collar jobs – including of course jobs involved in programming industrial automation systems – the leisure present in the service economy, and the greater expansion of material wealth globally we have seen in recent decades.

Who uses Industrial Automation?

While industrial automation as a movement was born out of automated control systems for specific industrial machines towards the end of World War 2, the following decades saw more automated systems, automated machining and robotics integrations begin to become commonplace on the factory floor. By the 1980s, economies like Japan had become thoroughly roboticized for automotive and manufactured electronics, a trend that has been followed through on by China and other newly developed economies to this day

The catch is, most of this automation has happened in areas where certain types of unskilled labor have been relatively cheap, and in industries (like automotive and consumer electronics) mean that production processes must be concentrated – both in geographies and among a limited number of highly profitable firms. 

In the same way, primary materials manufacturers in pulp, paper, metals and more rely on automated systems, but this is rarely robotic and much more oriented around processing large amounts of raw materials that are not distributed as final products, but rather used in manufacturing final products for businesses or consumers.

Automotive and electronics manufacturers have made the most use of programmable robots, one of the greatest achievements of industrial automation. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

With the advent of robot vision, artificial intelligence, and more unique technological capacities, new sectors will have the opportunity to use industrial robotics and take the advantages of industrial automation to a new level.  This is further essential for many firms as, both in developed and newly developed economies, demographic transitions mean there will only be less skilled labor available to meet production needs in the foreseeable future.

High-mix manufacturers stand to benefit most of all here. Manufacturers working with batches less than 1000, with more than 10 parts on the same machine in a month or even a year, these kinds of firms have seen some forms of automation and almost all forms of robotics as off limits. 

Now, they have still benefited from using process controllers or programmable automation controllers for conveyors and other singular industrial applications, but they haven’t been able to adapt many skilled applications like painting or other spray processes to their slate of automated tasks. 

With new robotics advances, these firms don’t just have the ability to achieve automation, but a state of autonomous manufacturing – one where the programming and organization of processes themselves can become more automated in ways that allow human engineers to focus primarily on creating value through product design… and let the machines take care of the rest!

What is better than Industrial Automation?

“Autonomous Manufacturing” is the idea and practice that a manufacturer’s facilities, processes and cells can function autonomously without being limited by available skills, resources or processes and instead can focus on achieving the most productive output for the best available design.

This means that, whether it’s labor, raw material or transportation, your facility has everything it needs to meet the demands you face without being held hostage by external factors or internal challenges like excessively high costs of production, production bottlenecks or frequent and unavoidable rework that often makes even the most basic factory operations blatantly unprofitable.

This may not be applicable to every manufacturer – particularly where scarce resources or remote geographies apply – but when considering production processes or individual cells, autonomous robots are somewhere that any factory can start. 

Such robots can help you achieve your goals in a variety of ways, including through near real-time, self-programming processes that use robot vision and AI to simplify your ability to deploy robots no matter your part volume or variety. Omnirobotic’s AutonomyOS™ has already achieved this for spray and finishing processes, allowing any manufacturer – including high-mix ones – to benefit from autonomous robots for these processes in ways that are just as adaptable and responsive to your parts as skilled human workers, but with all the repeatability, consistency and productivity benefits that come with existing industrial robots. 

Making Real Use of Autonomous Manufacturing

Autonomous Manufacturing Robots enable you to get more work done without needing skilled labor, rework or a variety of the usual hidden costs that come with any industrial finishing process. 

For industrial manufacturers, this is a critical capability as both global supply chains and the long-term availability of skilled labor become increasingly uncertain. Being able to add a robot that doesn’t need to be told every little detail – and instead understands HOW to do the job on its own – will become essential to maintaining your independence as a manufacturer and continuing to find opportunities to grow.

With change being the only constant today, a variety of industrial firms – whether it’s in farm or construction equipment, prefabricated buildings, aerospace, basic industrial machinery or more – are all seeing tremendous growth opportunities and increased ability to meet production demand with autonomous industrial robots. Download this deglobalization white paper to understand some of the challenges you may face, or contact us to learn more about what you can get from autonomous manufacturing robots. 

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

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