What is Automation?

The word ‘Automation’ is derived from greek words “Auto”(self) and “Matos” (moving). Automation therefore is the mechanism for systems that “move by itself”. However, apart from this original sense of the word, automated systems also achieve significantly superior performance than what is possible with manual systems, in terms of power, precision and speed of operation.

Definition: Automation is a set of technologies that results in operation of machines and systems without significant human intervention and achieves performance superior to manual operation

The application of machines to tasks once performed by human beings or, increasingly, to tasks that would otherwise be impossible. Although the term mechanization is often used to refer to the simple replacement of human labour by machines, automation generally implies the integration of machines into a self-governing system.  Automation Systems may include Control Systems but the reverse is not true. Control Systems may be parts of Automation Systems.  The main function of control systems is to ensure that outputs follow the set points. However, Automation Systems may have much more functionality, such as computing set points for control systems, monitoring system performance, plant startup or shutdown, job and equipment scheduling etc. Automation Systems are essential for most modern industries.


Definition: Control is a set of technologies that achieves desired patterns of variations of operational parameters and sequences for machines and systems by providing the input signals necessary.

  1. Industrial Automation also involves significant amount of hardware technologies, related to Instrumentation and Sensing, Actuation and Drives, Electronics for Signal Conditioning, Communication and Display, Embedded as well as Stand-alone Computing Systems etc.
  2. As Industrial Automation systems grow more sophisticated in terms of the knowledge and algorithms they use, as they encompass larger areas of operation comprising several units or the whole of a factory, or even several of them, and as they integrate manufacturing with other areas of business, such as, sales and customer care, finance and the entire supply chain of the business, the usage of IT increases dramatically. However, the lower level Automation Systems that only deal with individual or , at best, a group of machines, make less use of IT and more of hardware, electronics and embedded computing.


Manufacturing processes, basically, produce finished product from raw/unfinished material using energy, manpower and equipment and infrastructure. Since an industry is essentially a “systematic economic activity”, the fundamental objective of any industry is to make profit. Roughly speaking, Profit = (Price/unit – Cost/unit) x Production Volume.

So profit can be maximized by producing good quality products, which may sell at higher price, in larger volumes with less production cost and time.

Automation can achieve all these in the following ways, Automation affects all of these factors. Firstly, automated machines have significantly lower production times. For example, in machine tools, manufacturing a variety of parts, significant setup times are needed for setting the operational configuration and parameters whenever a new part is loaded into the machine. This can lead to significant unproductive for expensive machines when a variety of products is manufactured. Similarly, systems such as Automated Guided Vehicles, Industrial Robots, Automated Crane and Conveyor Systems reduce material handling time. Automation also reduces cost of production significantly by efficient usage of energy, manpower and material.

The product quality that can be achieved with automated precision machines and processes cannot be achieved with manual operations. Moreover, since operation is automated, the same quality would be achieved for thousands of parts with little variation.

Industrial Products go through their life cycles, which consist of various stages.

  • At first, a product is conceived based on Market feedbacks, as well as Research and Development Activities.
  • Once conceived the product is designed. Prototype Manufacturing is generally needed to prove the design.
  • Once the design is proved, Production Planning and Installation must be carried out to ensure that the necessary resources and strategies for mass manufacturing are in place.
  • This is followed by the actual manufacture and quality control activities through which the product is mass-produced.
  • This is followed by a number of commercial activities through which the product is actually sold in the market.
  • Automation also reduces the overall product life cycle i.e., the time required to complete.

Automation systems can be categorized based on the flexibility and level of integration in manufacturing process operations. Various automation systems can be classified as follows

Fixed Automation: It is used in high volume production with dedicated equipment, which has a fixed set of operation and designed to be efficient for this set. Continuous flow and Discrete Mass Production systems use this automation. e.g. Distillation Process, Conveyors, Paint Shops, Transfer lines etc. A process using mechanized machinery to perform fixed and repetitive operations in order to produce a high volume of similar parts.

Programmable Automation: It is used for a changeable sequence of operation and configuration of the machines using electronic controls. However, non-trivial programming effort may be needed to reprogram the machine or sequence of operations. Investment on programmable equipment is less, as production process is not changed frequently. It is typically used in Batch process where job variety is low and product volume is medium to high, and sometimes in mass production also. E.g. in Steel Rolling Mills, Paper Mills etc.

Flexible Automation: It is used in Flexible Manufacturing Systems (FMS) which is invariably computer controlled. Human operators give high-level commands in the form of codes entered into computer identifying product and its location in the sequence and the lower level changes are done automatically. Each production machine receives settings/instructions from computer. This automatically loads/unloads required tools and carries out their processing instructions. After processing, products are automatically transferred to next machine. It is typically used in job shops and batch processes where product varieties are high and job volumes are medium to low. Such systems typically use Multipurpose CNC machines, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) etc.

Integrated Automation: It denotes complete automation of a manufacturing plant, with all processes functioning under computer control and under coordination through digital information processing. It includes technologies such as computer-aided design and manufacturing, computer-aided process planning, computer numerical control machine tools, flexible machining systems, automated storage and retrieval systems, automated material handling systems such as robots and automated cranes and conveyors, computerized scheduling and production control. It may also integrate a business system through a common database. In other words, it symbolizes full integration of process and management operations using information and communication technologies. Typical examples of such technologies are seen in Advanced Process Automation Systems and Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) Degree of automation necessary for an individual manufacturing facility depends on manufacturing and assembly specifications, labor conditions and competitive pressure, labor cost and work requirements. One must remember that the investment on automation must be justified by the consequent increase in profitability. To exemplify, the appropriate contexts for Fixed and Flexible Automation are compared and contrasted.

Fixed automation is appropriate in the following circumstances.

  1. Low variability in product type as also in size, shape, part count and material
  2. Predictable and stable demand for 2- to 5-year time period, so that manufacturing capacity requirement is also stable
  3. High production volume desired per unit time
  4. Significant cost pressures due to competitive market conditions. So automation systems should be tuned to perform optimally for the particular product.