The term automation was coined in the automobile industry in the year 1946 to describe the increased use of automatic devices and controls in mechanized production lines. The origin of the word was done by D.S. Harder, an engineering manager at the Ford Motor Company at the time. The term is used widely in a manufacturing context, but it is also applied outside manufacturing in connection with a variety of systems in which there is a significant substitution of mechanical, electrical, or computerized action for human effort and intelligence.
Automation technology has matured to a point where a number of other technologies have developed from it and have achieved a recognition and status of their own. Robotics is one of these technologies; it is a specialized branch of automation in which the automated machine possesses certain anthropomorphic, or humanlike, characteristics. The most typical human-like characteristic of a modern industrial robot is its powered mechanical arm. The robot’s arm can be programmed to move through a sequence of motions to perform useful tasks, such as loading and unloading parts at a production machine or making a sequence of spot-welds on the sheet-metal parts of an automobile body during assembly. As these examples suggest, industrial robots are typically used to replace human workers in factory operations.
Industrial robotics is an automation technology that has received considerable attention since about 1960. Robotics is based on two related technologies: numerical control and teleoperators. Numerical control (NC) is a method of controlling machine tool axes by means of numbers that have been coded on punched paper tape or other media. It was developed during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The first numerical control machine tool was demonstrated in 1952 in the United States at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Teleoperator is a mechanical manipulator that is controlled by a human from a remote location. Initial work on the design of teleoperators can be traced to the handling of radioactive material.
The Robot Manipulator
The most widely accepted definition of an industrial robot is one developed by the Robotic Industries Association:
An industrial robot is a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move materials, parts, tools, or specialized devices through variable programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.
The technology of robotics is concerned with the design of the mechanical manipulator and the computer systems used to control it.
“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced [robots] wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”
― Stephen Hawking
Automation in Daily Life
A local area network (LAN) operates like an automated telephone company within a single building or group of buildings. Local area networks are generally capable of transmitting not only voice but also digital data between terminals in the system. Communications satellites have become essential for communicating telephone or video signals across great distances. Such communications would not be possible without the automated guidance systems that place and retain the satellites in predetermined orbits.
Automation has been applied in various ways in the transportation industries. Applications include airline reservation systems, automatic pilots in aircraft and locomotives, and urban mass-transit systems. The airlines use computerized reservation systems to continuously monitor the status of all flights.
Automation of service industries includes an assortment of applications as diverse as the services themselves, which include healthcare, banking and other financial services, government, and retail trade.
Consumer products ranging from automobiles to small appliances have been automated for the benefit of the user. Microwave ovens, washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, video recorders, and other modern household appliances typically contain a microprocessor that works as the computer controller for the device.
New Innovation On the way
As North American auto show season kicked off last week in Detroit and Montreal, the steady stream of announcements from automakers painted a future that looks increasingly electrified and luxurious.
While Elon Musk and Tesla may be the highest-profile champions for sustainable transportation, many mainstream automakers are now going all in on electrification. Today, nearly every major automaker produces at least one hybrid or plug-in electric model. Soon, many automakers will have entirely electric fleets. Swedish automaker Volvo Cars announced last year that every vehicle it launches from 2019 onward will have an electric motor – either hybrid or fully battery-powered. Infiniti announced last week that it will introduce only fully or partially electric vehicles after 2021. And giants such as Ford, General Motors, and Daimler have all announced many billions of dollars of investments to launch dozens of new battery electric and fuel cell models in the next five years. Even Porsche and Lamborghini are working on electric supercars with the Mission E and Terzo Millennio respectively.
Automation and the Market
Nearly all industrial installations of automation, and in particular robotics, involve a replacement of human labor by an automated system. Therefore, one of the direct effects of automation on factory operations is the dislocation of human labor from the workplace. The long-term effects of automation on employment and unemployment rates are debatable.
Productivity is a fundamental economic issue that is influenced by automation. The productivity of a process is traditionally defined as the ratio of output units to the units of labor input. A properly justified automation project will increase productivity owing to increases in production rate and reductions in labor content. As automation has increased, there has developed a shortage of technically trained personnel to implement these technologies competently.
Automation technology, if used wisely and effectively, can yield substantial opportunities for the future. There is an opportunity to relieve humans from repetitive, hazardous, and unpleasant labor in all forms. And there is an opportunity for future automation technologies to provide a growing social and economic environment in which humans can enjoy a higher standard of living and a better way of life.