27 July 2021


A New Era of Automation in Manufacturing

When we imagine a manufacturing facility, we think of conveyor belts, robotic arms, elaborate machinery, and human workers in protective gear ensuring the entire system’s functioning correctly and putting the finishing touches on goods before shipment.

Automation is, simply put, built into our conception of how modern manufacturing operates. But recent technological advances have fundamentally changed what automation can accomplish, and what we once envisioned as the factory of the future is in many ways already here today.

This new era of automation will disrupt and displace old models of production and permanently change not only manufacturing, but product development, supply chain management, and sales and marketing. This post explains how we got here, what this new technology means for automation, and how forward-thinking manufacturers can apply it to their own operations.

A Brief History of Manufacturing Automation

Automation, in the sense of using machinery as a substitute for human labor, dates at least back to the Roman Empire, where water wheels were used extensively in mining projects to drain water from underground shafts.

The modern era of manufacturing automation was shaped during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s when agrarian and artisanal modes of production were supplanted by industrial ones based around machine manufacturing. Henry Ford’s assembly line techniques in the 1910s and urban electrification in the 1920s furthered this transformation

In the 1940s, the Ford Motor Company established an “automation department”—marking the first use of that term in relation to manufacturing. During this period, feedback controllers were rapidly adopted in manufacturing to facilitate numerous production processes, including accurately positioning large objects (like partly finished automobile components) on a production line. It was against this background, in 1946, that Fortune magazine published a cover story titled “Machines Without Men” which sketched out a near-future vision of workerless factories.

The programmable logic controller (PLC)—a computer designed for usage in rough industrial settings—was invented in 1968. And in the 1970s, the distributed control system (DCS) was developed by a team of engineers at Honeywell. By the 1980s, computer-driven automation had been widely adopted across the manufacturing industry and was even being employed in sectors like retail and pharmaceutical.

How Automation is Being Leveraged Today

Automation initially aimed to mechanize certain repetitive physical tasks in the manufacturing process, and advances in robotics in the 1970s and 1980s helped amplify this transformation as industrial robotic arms were widely deployed for automotive manufacturing. But today’s automation is being driven by sophisticated technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning that can mimic human thinking as well. This development offers several key benefits for manufacturers, namely:

We can see how these factors are already disrupting manufacturing operations across sectors:

Getting Automation Right: Key Considerations

Automation offers countless benefits for manufacturers, but like any other technology it should be deployed strategically—not as a quick fix for structural flaws in your production process. Before you invest, consider these five factors identified by McKinsey:

One key consideration not identified by McKinsey is choosing the right production system. Automated manufacturing typically involves one of three types of production systems:

The production system you install will reflect the products being produced, the machines required for implementation, and the available resources.

Wrapping Up

Manufacturing is at the forefront of a technological revolution driven not only by robotics, but also by the adoption of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and Industrial IIoT. Together, these technologies have transformed our conception of what’s possible with automation in manufacturing, and by successfully implementing them you can optimize your entire production process, deliver substantial ROI, and consistently outperform industry competitors.

Ready to learn more? Check out our Digital Manufacturer infographic, which identifies key automation opportunities and details how to become a fully developed digital manufacturer.

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