The growth of industrial automation and robotics came from 19th Century mechanised industry, where humans were called upon to operate increasingly complex machinery to deliver higher rates of productivity. As mechanisation advanced, the machine operators became increasingly peripheral to the operation and this notion was further advanced with industrial automation.
Industrial automation required even less human control for basic and repetitive tasks, which displaced some jobs but also created new opportunities related to the automation itself. This moved roles towards a white collar economy as nations such as Japan achieved highly roboticised electronic and automotive manufacture by the 1980s.
This parallel growth of industrial automation and robotics has continued with the advent of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robot vision. Today, it is not just manufacturing that can be automated but also programming and process organisation, leaving people free to focus on adding value through improved product designs.
Robots can be used in physical industrial automation, but are not required for virtual tasks and software-based applications.
Industrial automation, with robots or without, offers a range of advantages:
1. Reduced Operating Costs
With no requirement for healthcare, paid leave, pension payments or other staff benefits and with no wages to pay, industrial automation is typically cheaper than employing people. While there can be maintenance costs, if managed correctly these should still be far less than staff-related costs for the same output or better.
2. Improved Productivity
Industrial automation allows plants to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no time loss for staff handovers or holidays, improving the productivity of the plant.
3. Improved Quality
Industrial automation is highly repeatable, without the errors associated with human staff. Machinery will also not get tired, which can impact quality and productivity at certain times of a shift.
4. Highly Flexible
An automated system, including robots, can be programmed to take on a different task, offering greater flexibility than with humans, who may need training on a different task.
5. Improved Data Accuracy and Collection
Automated data collection is not just more reliable but it can also allow you to improve your data accuracy, offering the required facts to make decisions to reduce waste and improve processes.
6. Increased Safety
Using robots for hazardous roles or conditions will improve the safety at your facility when compared to using human employees.
Industrial automation allows more work to get done, cheaper and more effectively than with human employees. It also means that you do not need to seek skilled labour where a robot could be used instead.
The primary disadvantage of industrial automation is the high costs associated with switching from a human to an automatic production line. There are also subsequent costs associated with retraining or hiring staff to handle the sophisticated equipment.
Already worth billions of dollars each year, industrial automation and robotics-related services will keep growing as technology continues to advance.
As robot production has increased, so the related costs have reduced and this trend should continue as more emerging economies begin to look to robotics as a solution. As a consequence of this increased robot production, there has also been a rise in the availability of the required skills to design, install, operate and maintain them. In addition, the increased availability of software has reduced the associated engineering time and risk, while making robot programming much easier and cheaper.
As technology continues to advance, these trends should continue into the future with robotic systems able to collect data, monitor processes and troubleshoot any problems. Robots are already able to use sensors and other data points to monitor and adapt their movements in real time, mimicking the skills of a human craftsperson to improve a process and reduce rework or inspection requirements.
While robots will continue to be used to automate repetitive physical tasks, emerging technologies could allow robots to respond to voice commands as artificial intelligence allows them to cope with a broader sweep of tasks and adapt in response to changes in the working environment. This would see robots being used in areas such as agriculture, where the need to be able to find, assess and harvest produce has been difficult for automated systems. Robotic precision is another area that should see advances in the future, with the ability to complete more delicate tasks with improved coordination.
As robots advance, it will be possible to decide which tasks should be automated and which should be conducted by humans and, with advanced safety systems, robots will also be more regularly deployed to work alongside humans without potentially endangering them.
Automated systems are now advancing to be able to monitor and automatically adjust the speed of entire production lines to maximise output and minimise costs.
With all of these advances coming into play, an automation strategy will depend upon successfully deciding which areas to automate and at what level.
What is Industrial Automation?
Industrial automation is the use of information technologies and control systems like computers and robots to handle machines and physical or virtual processes instead of relying on human beings. Industrial automation is a step forward from mechanisation as part of industrial processes.
What is the Meaning of Industrial Robotics?
Industrial robotics is the use of a robot for manufacturing or other industrial process, including assembly, packing, labelling, painting, inspection, testing, welding, and more. The use of robots for these tasks should provide high endurance, precision and speed for the tasks.
What is the Difference between Robotics and Automation?
Although they are sometimes used interchangeably, robotics and automation are different things. Automation is the process of using technology to complete tasks otherwise performed by humans. These tasks can be either physical or virtual and can involve the use of robots to perform them. Robotics is the process of developing and using robots (specifically) for a particular function, which may or may not be automated.
While industrial automation and robotics are not the same thing, they often go hand-in-hand to improve productivity, quality and safety at low costs in a variety of industries.
With applications including manufacturing lines and precision surgery, the use of automation-enabled robotics continues to advance with the growth of Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity as more businesses explore the benefits of Industry 4.0.
However, just as robots do not need to be automated, so industrial automation does not just rely on physical robots. Industrial automation covers any aspect of an operation that can be done by a machine rather than a human, meaning that there are many virtual aspects to automation too.
Advances in industry have a history of causing concern among employees who fear that their jobs will be replaced by new technology. However, even as industrial automation takes the place of mundane, hazardous or repetitive tasks, it also opens up new specialisms in the design and maintenance of the automation systems themselves. This also allows staff to focus on more creative areas, such as product design.
Industrial automation and robotics looks set to continue growing and expanding into new regions, driving down the associated costs as new technologies emerge to provide smarter systems that can take data and react to environments in real time.