Automation (Encyclopedia of Science)
Automation is the use of computers and robots to automatically control and operate machines or systems to perform work normally done by humans. Although ideas for automating tasks have been in existence since the time of the ancient Greeks, the development of automation came during the Industrial Revolution of the early eighteenth century. Many of the steam-powered devices built by James Watt, Richard Trevithick, Thomas Savery, Thomas Newcomen, and their contemporaries were simple examples of machines capable of taking over the work of humans. Modern automated machines can be subdivided into two large categories: open-loop machines and closed-loop machines.
Open-loop machines are devices that are started, go through a cycle, and then stop. A common example is the automatic dishwashing machine. Once dishes are loaded into the machine and a button pushed, the machine goes through a predetermined cycle of operations: pre-rinse, wash, rinse, and dry. Many of the most familiar appliances in homes today (microwave ovens, coffeemakers, CD players) operate on this basis.
Larger, more complex industrial operations also use open-cycle operations. For example, in the production of a car, a single machine may be programmed to place a side panel in place on the car and then weld it in a dozen or more locations. Each of the steps involved...
(The entire section is 995 words.)
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Automation (Encyclopedia of Small Business)
Automation refers to the use of computers and other automated machinery for the execution of business-related tasks. Automated machinery may range from simple sensing devices to robots and other sophisticated equipment. Automation of operations may encompass the automation of a single operation or the automation of an entire factory.
There are many different reasons to automate. Increased productivity is normally the major reason for many companies desiring a competitive advantage. Automation also offers low operational variability. Variability is directly related to quality and productivity. Other reasons to automate include the presence of a hazardous working environment and the high cost of human labor. Some businesses automate processes in order to reduce production time, increase manufacturing flexibility, reduce costs, eliminate human error, or make up for a labor shortage. Decisions associated with automation are usually concerned with some or all of these economic and social considerations.
For small business owners, weighing the pros and cons of automation can be a daunting task. But consultants contend that it is an issue that should not be put off. "We are creating a new ball game," wrote Perry Pascarella in Industry Week. "Failure to take a strategic look at where the organization wants to go and then capitalizing on the new technologies available will hand death-dealing advantages to competitorsraditional and unexpected ones."
TYPES OF AUTOMATION
Although automation can play a major role in increasing productivity and reducing costs in service industriess in the example of a retail store that installs bar code scanners in its checkout lanesutomation is most prevalent in manufacturing industries. In recent years, the manufacturing field has witnessed the development of major automation alternatives. Some of these types of automation include:
- Information technology (IT)
- Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM)
- Numerically controlled (NC) equipment
- Flexible manufacturing systems (FMS)
- Computer integrated manufacturing (CIM)
Information technology (IT) encompasses a broad spectrum of computer technologies used to create, store, retrieve, and disseminate information.
Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) refers to the use of computers in the different functions of production planning and control. CAM includes the use of numerically controlled machines, robots, and other automated systems for the manufacture of products. Computer-aided manufacturing also includes computer-aided process planning (CAPP), group technology (GT), production scheduling, and manufacturing flow analysis. Computer-aided process planning (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.
Numerically controlled (NC) machines are programmed versions of machine tools that execute operations in sequence on parts or products. Individual machines may have their own computers for that purpose; such tools are commonly referred to as computerized numerical controlled (CNC) machines. In other cases, many machines may share the same computer; these are called direct numerical controlled machines.
Robots are a type of automated equipment that may execute different tasks that are normally handled by a human operator. In manufacturing, robots are used to handle a wide range of tasks, including assembly, welding, painting, loading and unloading of heavy or hazardous materials, inspection and testing, and finishing operations.
Flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) are comprehensive systems that may include numerically controlled machine tools, robots, and automated material handling systems in the manufacture of similar products or components using different routings among the machines.
A computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) system is one in which many manufacturing functions are linked through an integrated computer network. These manufacturing or manufacturing-related functions include production planning and control, shop floor control, quality control, computer-aided manufacturing, computer-aided design, purchasing, marketing, and 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.
AUTOMATION AND THE SMALL BUSINESS OWNER
Understanding and making use of automation-oriented strategic alternatives is essential for manufacturing firms of all shapes and sizes. It is particularly important for smaller companies, which often enjoy inherent advantages in terms of operational nimbleness. But experts note that whatever your company's size, automation of production processes is no longer sufficient in many industries.
"The computer, in its hardened and non-hardened forms, has made it possible to control manufacturing more precisely and to assemble more quickly, factors which have increased competition and forced companies to move faster in today's market," wrote Leslie C. Jasany in Automation. "But now, with the aid of the computer, companies will have to move to the next logical step in automationhe automatic analysis of data into information which empowers employees to immediately use that information to control and run the factory as if they were running their own business." Indeed, industry analyst Scott Flaig proclaimed to Jasany that "automation of information is clearly where the opportunity is, not in automation of labor. The work that is being done now in advanced manufacturing is work to manage and control the process, not the automation of the added-value aspect of the process."
Small business owners face challenges in several distinct areas as they prepare their enterprises for the technology-oriented environment in which the vast majority of them will operate. Three primary issues are employee training, management philosophy, and financial issues.
EMPLOYEE TRAINING Many business owners and managers operate under the assumption that acquisition of fancy automated production equipment or data processing systems will instantaneously bring about measurable improvements in company performance. But as countless consultants and industry experts have noted, even if these systems eliminate work previously done by employees, they ultimately function in accordance with the instructions and guidance of other employees. Therefore, if those latter workers receive inadequate training in system operation, the business will not be successful. All too often, wrote Lura K. Romei in Modern Office Technology, "the information specialists who designed the software and installed the systems say that the employees are either unfamiliar with technology or unwilling to learn. The employees' side is that they were not instructed in how to use the system, or that the system is so sophisticated that it is unsuited to the tasks at hand. All the managers see are systems that are not doing the job, and senior management wonders why all that money was spent for systems that are not being used."
An essential key to automation success for small business owners, then, is to establish a quality education program for employees, and to set up a framework in which workers can provide input on the positive and negative aspects of new automation technology. As John Hawley commented in Quality Progress, the applications of automation technology may be growing, but the human factor still remains paramount in determining organizational effectiveness.
MANAGEMENT PHILOSOPHY Many productive business automation systems, whether in the realm of manufacturing or data processing, call for a high degree of decision-making responsibility on the part of those who operate the systems. As both processes and equipment become more automatically controlled, claimed Jasany, "employees will be watching them to make sure they stay in control, and fine tune the process as need. These enabler tools are changing the employee's job from one of adding touch labor to products to one of monitoring and supervising an entire process."
But many organizations are reluctant to empower employees to this degree, either because of legitimate concerns about worker capabilities or a simple inability to relinquish power. In the former instance, training and/or workforce additions may be necessary; in the latter, management needs to recognize that such practices ultimately hinder the effectiveness of the company. "The people aspect, the education, the training, the empowerment is now the management issue," Flaig told Jasany. "Management is confronted today with the decision as to whether or not they will give up perceived power, whether they will make knowledge workers of these employees."
FINANCIAL ISSUES It is essential for small businesses to anticipate and plan for the various ways in which new automation systems can impact on bottom-line financial figures. Factors that need to be weighed include tax laws, long-term budgeting, and current financial health.
Depreciation tax laws for software and hardware are complex, which leads many consultants to recommend that business owners use appropriate accounting assistance in investigating their impact. Budgeting for automation costs can be complex as well, but as with tax matters, business owners are encouraged to educate themselves. By doing so, wrote Best's Review's Janice L. Scites, "you can ensure that you are investing your money wisely and can bring some predictability to your financial planning. With the shortened life of most new technology, especially at the desktop, it is critical that you plan on annually reinvesting in your technology. Spikes in spending can be difficult to manage and can wreak havoc with your budgets. You'll also need to decide what is an appropriate level of spending for your company, or for yourself if it's a personal decision. Arriving at that affordable spending level requires a strategic look at your company to assess how vital a contributor technology is to the success of your business."
Scites notes that "hardware decisions are generally complex, with long-term implications" in such areas as stream of payments, maintenance costs, and additional support expenses. But she adds that business owners can reduce risks by "having a clear understanding of business plans, establishing a sound technology architecture, selecting hardware in the context of this architecture, building strong vendor alliances, and adopting standard software interfaces."
Once new automation systems are in operation, business owners and managers should closely monitor financial performance for clues about their impact on operations. "Unused technology or underused technology is a big tipoff that something is wrong," wrote Romei. "Many ideas for applications with few in actual operation is another. Watch for cost overruns on new systems, and look out when new systems are brought in predictably late."
The accelerating pace of automation in various areas of business can be dizzying. As James Pinto observed in Automation, "technology is causing ever faster movement, with cost variations and fluctuations that defy even contemporary financial tracking." It will be a challenge for small businesses to keep pacer stay aheadf such changes. But the forward-thinking business owner will plan ahead, both strategically and financially, to ensure that the evermore automated world of business does not leave him or her behind.
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Bradbury, Danny. "Through the Looking Glass." Computing. April 3, 1997.
Hawley, John K. "Automation Doesn't Automatically Solve Problems." Quality Progress. May 1996.
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Partch, Ken. "The Coming Impact of Information Technology." Supermarket Business. February 1997.
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Pinto, James J. "If It Ain't Brokeix It Anyway!" Automation. September 1991.
Romei, Lura K. "Take a Nice, Easy Backswing and Then Just Follow Through." Modern Office Technology. October 1987.
Scites, Janice L. "How Can I Successfully Budget for Automation?" Best's Reviewife-Health Insurance Edition. May 1995.
Stasko, Linda. "Computers Alone Are Not Always a Solution." Machine Design. September 28, 1995.
SEE ALSO: Robotics
Automation (Encyclopedia of Business)
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 process automation and control
- information management and processing Many businesses use both types extensively.
PHYSICAL AUTOMATIO N
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)
- numerical control (NC) equipment
- flexible manufacturing systems (FMS)
- computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM)
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.
INFORMATION PROCESSING AUTOMATION
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
- electronic identification and tracking of inventory
- automated record keeping and transaction processing
- information sharing across the organization
- data analysis and manipulation
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.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.
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Sweet, Pat. "Fast Forward for Finance." Accountancy, October 1998.