Automation refers to the use of computers and other automated machinery for the execution of tasks that a human laborer would otherwise perform. Companies automate for many reasons. Increased productivity is normally the primary reason for many companies desiring a competitive advantage. Automation can also reduce human error and thus improve quality. Other reasons to automate include the presence of a hazardous working environment and the high cost of human labor. The decision regarding automation is often associated with some economic and social considerations.
Virtually every industry sector has benefited from automation, including manufacturing, services, and retailing, and some have been greatly transformed by it. Automation technology falls into two main categories:
Physical automation systems are used primarily by companies that deal in physical products, such as in mining and manufacturing. Automated machinery may range from simple sensing devices at one stage of a production process to robots and other sophisticated equipment that control the entire process.
Some of the major classes of physical automation technologies include
Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) refers to the use of computers in the different functions of production planning and control. Computer-aided manufacturing includes the use of numerically controlled machines, robots, and other automated systems for the manufacture of products. CAM also includes computer-aided process planning (CAPP), group technology (GT), production scheduling, and manufacturing flow analysis. CAPP means the use of computers to generate process plans for the manufacture of different products. Group technology (GT) is a manufacturing philosophy that aims at grouping different products and creating different manufacturing cells for the manufacture of each group.
Numerical control (NC) machines are programmed versions of machine tools that execute a sequence of operations on parts or products. Individual machines that have their own computers are called computerized numerical control (CNC) machines. When multiple machines share the same computer, they are known as direct numerical control (DNC) machines.
Robots are automated equipment that, through programming, may execute different tasks that are normally handled by a human operator. In manufacturing, robots are used to handle a number of tasks, including assembly, welding, painting, loading and unloading, inspection and testing, and finishing operations.
Flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) use several kinds of automation to create highly versatile manufacturing processes. They are groups of computer numerical control machines, robots, and an automated material handling system that are used to manufacture a number of similar products or components using different routings among the machines. The alternative routings can provide for rapid product modification in response to market needs or can simply allow a process to keep moving when one machine is out of service. Flexible manufacturing systems have proven to increase manufacturing productivity by 50 percent or more.
A computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) system is one in which many manufacturing functions are linked through an integrated computer network. These functions can include production planning and control, shop floor control, quality control, computer-aided manufacturing, computer-aided design, purchasing, marketing, and possibly other functions. The objective of a computer integrated manufacturing system is to allow changes in product design, to reduce costs, and to optimize production requirements. In the area of quality control, advanced systems can greatly decrease both human labor and the number of defects that go undetected. The most sophisticated of these systems include self-diagnostic functions that alert operators to any processing anomalies and may even be able to fix such problems on their own.
All businesses of any significant size automate their information handling in some way. Because the use of desktop computers is now so common, many simple forms of office automation may be overlooked. Word processing software automates daily tasks such as memo writing and identifying spelling errors. But information management is automated in more powerful ways, as well, such as in
These functions, and many others, can extend to all parts of the business, including finance departments, sales and marketing departments, and even corporate boardrooms. As with physical process automation, information management automation can markedly improve productivity and give corporate management greater strategic control over the enterprise.
Despite all the benefits, there are of course problems associated with implementing some kinds of automation. An obvious example is the social and. human costs when automation completely eliminates job categories. While statistics suggest that automation doesn't contribute strongly, if at all, to unemployment on the macroeconomic level, it can lead to personal dislocation and employee resentment. As a result, management must be highly sensitive to these concerns if it wishes to preserve employee morale.
Automation can also fail to deliver on productivity gains and other intended benefits. Systems may have technical flaws, or they may have been designed to emulate an inefficient or overly complex human process and thus fall short of enhancing the overall process. Automated systems, in addition, may have unforeseen negative interactions with other parts of a process that aren't automated—e.g., if suppliers don't have compatible practices, a procurement department may not be able to improve efficiency even if it automates its portion of the process.
Combs, Katherine K. "Automating the Boardroom Cost-Effectively." Corporate Board, March-April 1998.
Mapleston, Peter. "'Lights-Out' Production Has Its Place—But Not in Complex Auto Parts." Modern Plastics, May 1998.
Peppers, Don, and Martha Rogers. "Smart Marketing." Sales & Marketing Management, September 1998.
Porter, Anne Millen. "Automation Fails to Free Purchasing from Transactions." Purchasing, 8 October 1998.
Soloman, Sabrie. Affordable Automation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
Sweet, Pat. "Fast Forward for Finance." Accountancy, October 1998.