Curious about the different types of automation?
You’re not alone. Many companies are excited by the prospect of increasing efficiency and productivity with some help from automated equipment.
But which technology type is right for your application?
Let’s take a deep dive and find out!
Automation is a term for technology and innovation applications where physical human input is minimized. This may include IT automation, business process automation (BPA), industrial robotics, and personal applications like home automation.
Automation includes using various equipment and control systems such as factory processes, machinery, boilers, heat-treating ovens, steering, etc. Examples of automation range from a household thermostat to a large industrial control system, self-driven vehicles, and warehousing robots.
When automation is used in industries or manufacturing, it is called industrial automation. The industrial automation market grew globally, reaching $191 billion in 2021, and is expected to reach $395 billion by 2029.
Fixed animation, or hard automation, is an automation type in which the configuration of the manufacturing process stays fixed. This type of automation is therefore best suited for completing a single set of tasks repeatedly. For instance, if the automation procedure repeats the same tasks with identical units, it is fixed automation.
In effect, fixed automation machines are controlled by programmed commands and computers that direct them on what to do, give notifications, and measure production metrics. Fixed automation is generally suitable for large-volume products. The operation in fixed automation's sequence isn't complex and involves fundamental functionalities like rotational or plain linear motion or both.
Pros of Fixed Automation
- High levels of production
- Low cost per unit produced
- Consistent quality in production
- Automation of material handling like AGVs
- Easy to trace production procedure
- Limited automation maintenance
Cons of Fixed Automation
- Requires a high initial cost of installation
- Hard automation units must be replaced when new tasks need to be completed
- Difficult to accommodate changes
Fixed Automation Applications
Fixed automation is best suited for:
- High demand and generic production needs that require no change
- Machining transfer lines in the automotive industry, some automatic assembly machines, and some chemical processes
- Flow production, where products are continuously being made
An example of fixed automation in use is soft drink factories. They have fixed machines that enable their production of large quantities of soft same-unit drinks to meet high demands.
Programmable automation systems involve automated or robotic equipment controlled through programming for batch production. The automation is controlled through a program, which is coded in ways that allow it to change its sequence anytime there's a need.
This industrial automation type allows easy product or process changes by modifying the control program. This also allows the implementation of new processes.
Programmable automation is most used in systems that produce similar items using the same automated steps and tools. It's ideal for medium-to-high production volumes and suitable for batch production processes such as factories making food variants. If the product/production needs changing, the machine is reprogrammed.
In programmable automation, products are made in batch quantities at a time ranging from a few several dozen to several thousand units. And for each new product batch, the production equipment must be reprogrammed or changed over to accommodate the new or required product style.
Pros of Programmable Automation
- Greater flexibility to change products or deal with a variety of designs if needed
- Easier to program production
- Suitable if batch production is required
Cons of Programmable Automation
- Expensive equipment
- Produces fewer units per production cycle
- Time-consuming to change functions or products
- A period of nonproductive time during changeover
Programmable Automation Applications
Programmable automation is well suited for low/medium demand production and occasional changes in products:
- Logistical programming
- Intelligent robotic machines
- Industrial robots
- Numerical-control (NC) machine tools
- Paper and steel rolling mills use the same steps to create many different product types
- Traditional cruise control and thermostats
In the last example, you only need to set a speed or temperature, and the machines consistently produce programmed outcomes.
In a numerical control machine tool, the program is coded in computer/program memory for each different product style, and a computer program controls the machine tool.
Flexible automation, also known as soft automation, is an extension of programmable automation with next-to-zero downtime and minimum manual changeover procedure. This means greater flexibility and results in a greater production rate.
Essentially, flexible automation allows the production of different product types without the need for complex reprogramming. This allows production to switch between tasks minimizing downtime.
Building upon programmable automation, flexible automation systems often involve precise electromechanical controls. Examples are industrial robots and multipurpose CNC machines.
Pros of Flexible Automation
- Flexibility of products: No need to group identical products into batches
- Produce different types of products in sequence without complicated change-overs
- Product changeovers occur quickly and automatically. No time is lost with new changes to production
- No extra time is needed to reconfigure production equipment between batches
- Works well for batch production
- Allows for more in-demand production
- Allows increased customization
Cons of Flexible Automation
- Higher cost per unit
- High custom machinery/automation cost
Flexible Automation Applications
Flexible automation is ideal for medium-demand and constant changes/large variety in products.
- Industrial robots
- Multipurpose CNC machines
- Warehouse automation
- Modern adaptive cruise control and self-learning thermostats
Industries that use flexible automation include food processing, textile manufacturing, and paint manufacturing.
Note: The chart below shows what options might be best when choosing an automation type, depending on the variety and product demand.
Process automation means using technology to automate manual processes through data and systems integration. It combines all other industrial automation types into one, connecting flexible and integrated automation systems.
Process automation is used more in businesses where software programs/apps execute a set of tasks within the modern, digital enterprise. It manages business processes for transparency and uniformity to increase a company's workflow.
Using process automation can help increase productivity and efficiency in businesses. It can also provide new insights into business challenges and suggest solutions.
A process automation system typically has three functions:
- Automating processes
- Centralizing information
- Reducing human input in tasks
The scope of process automation may be broad. Many businesses start by automating simple departmental processes or support, such as flow management in a warehouse, data capture, predictive maintenance, or expense approval.
Other businesses may automate more complex, advanced, or cross-functional activities using advanced technologies. For example, full warehouse automation to support event-driven, mission-critical system delivery.
Pros of Process Automation
- Removes bottlenecks in task performance
- Reduces errors and data loss
- Increases transparency in production/task performance
- Increasing processing speed
- Streamlines communication across departments/platforms
Cons of Process Automation
- Expensive to install
- Requires skilled (and experienced) labor to implement
- May require expensive maintenance
Process Automation Applications
- Process mining and workflow automation
- Condition monitoring & I/O
- Automating repetitive tasks
- Managing and gathering data files
- Connecting and integrating data sources and services
An integrated automation system is a comprehensive automation framework that automates an entire manufacturing process through computer control.
Integrated automation aims to reduce the complexity of many independently automated work processes by streamlining communication between various automated processes.
For instance, rather than allowing three automated systems to function separately, integrated automation integrates them under one control system. So, data, independent machines, and processes will all work together under a single command system.
Overall, integrated automation is a holistic approach to industrial or manufacturing automation.
Pros of Integrated automation
- Unifies different automation systems into one
- Creates integrated production systems
- Can be used with batch and continuous-process manufacturing
Cons of Integrated automation
Integrated Automation Applications
Robotic process automation (RPA) is a type of process automation where software technology makes it easy to create/build, deploy, and manage software robots that emulate and do human actions.
The robots are programmed with software technology to do rule-based tasks, such as extracting data from screens or insurance forms, arranging products on shelves, etc.
A business can use RPA tools to work and communicate with other digital systems, capture data, process transactions, and retrieve information.
But unlike human labor, robots do these tasks faster, more efficiently, and consistently.
RPA is often quoted as a form of artificial Intelligence (AI), but it's not. Unlike AI, RPA uses rule-based, structured inputs and logic to undertake tasks. The robots do what they're told.
Pros of Robotic Process Automation
- Reduces labor costs and prevents human error
- Streamlines workflows, making organizations more flexible, profitable, and responsive
- Increases employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity
- RPA is noninvasive and can accelerate digital transformation
- Deal for automating workflows with legacy systems that lack database access, APIs, virtual desktop infrastructures (VDIs), etc.
Cons of Robotic Process Automation
- Requires regular monitoring to evaluate the automation's effectiveness. This will maximize your ROI
- Cannot create full automation. It still requires a human touch
- It may be expensive to implement
- RPA applications
- Call center operations
- Onboarding employees
- Scheduling systems
Robotic Process Automation applications
Financial firms were the first RAP adopters, but many companies in various industries now use it, including retail, healthcare, manufacturing, and warehousing.
What Is Automation?
Automation is the application of technology, programs, processes, programming, or robotics to achieve industrial or manufacturing outcomes with minimal human input.
What Is Automation Equipment?
Automation equipment includes machines, robots, and applications (like conveyors and special devices) used to automate production or warehouse activities with minimal human intervention.
There are different types of automated equipment for various industries, such as warehouse automation equipment, automotive, agricultural, food and beverage processing, etc.
What Is Industrial Automation?
Industrial automation is the application of automation equipment, control systems, robotics, machines, and computer software to perform tasks with limited human involvement.
Industrial automation can improve quality, productivity, and safety in warehouses, factories, industrial manufacturing, and other processes.
Industrial automation examples include:
- Warehouse automation
- Material handling and packaging
- Inspection and quality control
- Metal fabrication; welding, cutting, machining, cladding, etc.
- Food and beverage processing
What Are Industrial Automation Systems?
Industrial automation involves using technology to manage repetitive tasks, including hazardous tasks that risk the safety of human laborers. Industrial automation increases the accuracy of production and improves factory/industry safety.
Common implementation examples of industrial automation systems include:
- ASRS warehouse systems
- Numerically controlled (NC) equipment
- Flexible manufacturing systems
- Computer-aided manufacturing
What Is Computer Automation?
Computer automation refers to the use of computer software, electronics, computer-controlled devices, programming, and sometimes robots to control processes and replace manual work in warehouses, data centers, factories, cloud deployment, etc.
Who Created Automation?
In 1785, Oliver Evans developed an automatic flour mill, the first completely automated industrial process with continuous production without any human intervention. But the term 'automation' was not used until 1946.
The term automation is attributed to D.S. Harder, an engineer manager at Ford Motors Company, in 1946. Harder coined automation in the automobile industry, describing it as the increased mechanization of production lines to control and improve production rates.
William Grey Walter developed the first autonomous robots in automation in 1948.
How Does Automation Work?
In general, automation is technology machines that perform a process using computer-programmed commands with automatic feedback control to execute instructions.
This results in a system that can operate without human intervention to direct tasks, streamline processes, and improve production rates.
What Are the Levels of Automation?
There are 4 different levels of automation in manufacturing. In order from most general to most specific, they are:
1. Information or Enterprise Level
This is the top level of industrial automation. This level manages the whole industrial automation system, with tasks like production planning, orders, customer and market analysis, sales, etc. This level deals more with commercial activities of the company/warehouse and less with technical aspects.
2. Supervising and Control Production Level
At this level, monitoring systems and automatic devices facilitate the controlling and intervening functions in automatic systems, for instance, human-machine interface (HMI). It involves supervising various parameters and files, setting production targets, setting machine start and shutdown, historical archiving, etc.
This level involves more computer programming and human supervision. Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) or Distribution Control Systems (DCS) are popularly used at this level.
3. Control Level
The automation control level has various automation devices, such as robots, CNC machines, PLCs, etc., which acquire the process parameters from sensors and other field-level devices. This level involves a small level of human interaction and supports automated systems' control function and strategy.
4. Field Level
The lowest automation level is field automation, which includes the field devices like sensors, barcodes, valves, relays, actuators, etc. These automatic devices transfer data of processes and machines to a next higher level for monitoring, analysis, and control.
What Are the Different Types of Automated Material Handling Systems?
Some common types of automated material handling equipment include:
- Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS)
- Rail-guided vehicles (RGVs)
- Automated guided vehicles (AGVs)
- Autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIVs)
What Is the Purpose of Automation?
Automation is meant to streamline operations and improve a company's workflow. Automaton reduces time, effort, cost, and manual errors while giving your business more production efficiency, rates, and outcomes.
Repetitive tasks can be completed faster to increase production rates and produce high-quality results without human error. Overall, the purposes of industrial automation are:
- Streamline process
- Increase productivity and production rates
- Improve quality
- Reduce costs solutions (e.g., for human-based labor)
- Increase resource use efficiency
- Reduce production time
What Is Automation Used For?
Automation is the creation and application of technology and systems to monitor and control the production, delivery, and service of products and services. Overall, automation is used to streamline production/manufacturing workflow, monitoring, and control to limit human involvement, reduce errors, improve accuracy, increase the production rate, and save costs.
What Are the Benefits of Industrial Automation?
Automation has many benefits for businesses and workers. Here are the core benefits:
- Higher production rate. Automation reduces production time, giving a higher production rate and larger production volume.
- Increase productivity. Improved production rate through better production control of production, reduced downtime, reduced errors, reduced assembly time per product, etc
- Reduced operating costs. Reduced need for human labor and time leads to reduced costs in production and maintenance such as workers' wages, benefits, healthcare, pension, bonus, etc.
- Lower maintenance costs. Industrial automation machines have lower maintenance because they rarely fail.
- Consistency in product quality. Automation reduces human involvement, eliminating human errors and encouraging product quality and consistency uniformity.
- Improved work safety. Automation creates better working conditions. Machines handle processes that involve excessive pressures, extreme temperatures, high forces, toxic material, or fast movements, which pose safety hazards to personnel.
- Increased repeatability. Automated systems in a production line are efficient because the repeated sequence is "programmed" to perform tasks with a given precision. Actuators are designed with a near-constant motion range, increasing repeatability.
- Reduce routine checks. Automation reduces the need for routine manual checks of various process parameters. Automation technologies help industrial processes automatically adjust process variables to set desired values using closed-loop control techniques.
- Better decision-making. More connected devices controlled with industrial automation tools give managers more accurate data to use in decision-making. This is more applicable in warehouse systems, supply chains, banking, and finance.
How Is Automation Used Today?
Automation is present in factories, warehouses, modern businesses, schools, hospitals, and homes of all sizes, among other areas, to streamline operations and increase efficiency. Automation has different functions for different uses.
Automation has subtle features in common software apps, with obvious implementations like autonomous robots and self-driving vehicles.
Examples of automated systems include:
- FASTags reduce automatically connecting the taxpayer and the receiver
- Power backup devices like UPS, inverters, automated generators, etc., directly give power to production when the power goes off
- Amazon robot warehouse is a great example of automation
- Factory conveyor belts increase production rates
- ASRS warehouse systems
What Are the Latest Automation Technologies?
Examples of the latest automation technologies are:
- Rising artificial intelligence in automation with collaborative robots
- Software: no-code and low-code application platforms (LCAPs)
- Robotic process automation (RPA)
- Robotic gas pumps
- Cognitive intelligence such as chatbots, email marketing, etc.
- Automation centers of excellence (CoEs)
- The Internet of Things
- Semantic software automation systems
- Deployment centers of excellence (CoEs) teams
- Business process automation (BPA)
- Enterprise service management (ESM)
- Natural language processing (NLP)
That's it: All 6 different types of automation.
Now we’d like to turn it over to you.
Does one type stand out to you more than others?
Do you currently work with an automation system not discussed in this article?
Do you have further automation questions?
Let us know in the comments section.