What is Industrial Automation?

An Easy-to-Understand Introduction to Industrial Automation

Industrial automation is a really interesting field that combines mechanical, electrical, and software knowledge to automate processes that were previously done manually. In this post, I will explain what industrial automation is by looking at an example of how automation can be applied to a common industrial process, and defining the term industrial automation.

The idea here is to give you an understanding of what industrial automation is so that we can talk about more practical topics like industrial automation systems in future posts.

Let’s get started by looking at an example of how a common industrial process could be automated.

What is Automation?

Automation is the technique used to make a process or system operate automatically. When a process or system is operating automatically, it requires little or no human input.

The easiest way to understand automation is to look at how automation can transform a process that we are already familiar with from a manual process to an automatic one.

An easy-to-understand example of automation is the transformation of conveying containers from a completely manual to a completely automated process.

Automation Example: Conveying

Photo by Arno Senoner on Unsplash

Manual Process

Some conveying processes are completely manual.

In a manual conveying process, containers are dragged from one end of the conveyor to the other by operators.

In this manual process, the conveyor helps the operator by reducing the friction involved in dragging the container, but it does not do any of the actual work or have any intelligence to control the process.

Semi-Automated Process

A more sophisticated conveying process is a semi-automated process.

In a semi-automated process, an operator may be able to press a button to run the conveyor.

When the operator presses the button, power is applied to a motor that drives the conveyor, the conveyor runs, and the containers move from one end of the conveyor to the other.

We call this type of process semi-automated because the amount of human interaction in the process is reduced but there is still some interaction needed to make the system work.

In this example, the semi-automated process reduces the physical effort that the operator needs to provide by using a motor to move the containers.

However, the semi-automated process has no intelligence — the operator decides when to run and stop the motor.

Automated Process

These days conveying processes are completely automated. In a modern warehouse, conveyors work automatically without any human intervention.

When a container is loaded onto a conveyor, the conveyor detects the container and begins to run automatically. When the container reaches its destination, the conveyor stops so that the container can be unloaded.

In an automated system like this, there is a very limited amount of human interaction required for the process to work. The process provides both the effort and the intelligence needed for the process to run.

Of course, all automated processes provide a way for people to interact with the process in some way.

In this example, the operator still has buttons that allow her to manually override the intelligence of the automated process — she can use a start button to force the conveyors to run and a stop button to force the conveyors to stop.

Increasing Intelligence

As technology advances, the possibilities of automation expand.

In modern warehouses, automated processes do much more than transport containers from A to B.

They also have routing capabilities, measurement capabilities, data collection and analytics capabilities, and more.

Routing capabilities use automatic barcode scanners to read the barcode of containers and decide where to send each container based on the contents of the barcode

Measurement capabilities use built-in scales and volumetric scanners to check the weight, height, width, and length of containers and to store this data in a database. This data is then used to determine which truck has space for the container and may affect how the container is routed through the warehouse.

Data collection and analytics capabilities to monitor the performance of the process and alert technicians when equipment used in the process needs maintenance work.  

Now that we know what automation is and how a process can be automated, let’s look at the definition of industrial automation.

What is Industrial Automation?

Industrial automation is the application of automation to industrial processes as we have seen in the previous example.

In an industrial process, automation is used to produce or process raw materials, and to convert those raw materials into parts and finished products.

Almost every industry that you can imagine uses automation to make their businesses more efficient. The processes used to manufacture cars, assemble computers, print books, extract oil, bottle beer, and package widgets are all automated processes.

Wrap Up

In this post, we learned some basic principles about industrial automation including;

  • What automation is,
  • How a process can be automated, and
  • What industrial automation is,

Now that we know what industrial automation is, we can start talking about automation systems, which are the hardware and software components that enable industrial automation.

My next post will focus on industrial automation systems. Be sure to sign up to the mailing list below to be notified when that post is ready.

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