Amazon, UPS, and many other industry leaders use automated systems to maximize their revenue. Here, we will answer the question; what is industrial automation?

What is Industrial Automation?

In the good ol’ days – an industrial manufacturing plant was operated by human hands. Today, we see a very different kind of industrial facility on the rise. Take a walk through an Amazon Fulfillment Center, a dog food factory – or, even, an eye screening center – and you will likely see a highly automated facility.

This article should give a basic understanding of; what industrial automation is; how it is implemented by small businesses; and how your project or business might benefit from an automation consultant.    

Automating tasks and processes can make the difference between bankruptcy or success for small businesses and industrial manufacturers. If you are a project leader, business owner or administer any kind of industrial operation, we have written this article to answer the basic question, of; what is industrial automation?

Industrial Automation

Automation, in its most basic sense – aims to make something work, “automatically.” Often, this is in reference to a piece of machinery, or mechanized process – as is widely seen in the manufacturing industry. Industrial automation aims to combine multiple, separate systems into a unified network – which communicates and operates in sync, and autonomously.  

Almost, any manufacturing process can be automated. On a wide scale, this effectively maximizes a facilities productivity and profitability. Automated systems need less user interface, and produce at a much higher rate than that of non-automated (human) processes.  

For Example…

Let’s look at Amazon warehouses: A warehouse that is void of automation will have many workers. Every time an order is received for fulfillment; a worker must physically find the product; bring it to a designated area for shipment preparation; and catalog the record of that shipment. Depending on how many workers it takes to complete this process, it might take anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour – or more.

On the other hand – an automated warehouse will run much more quickly and efficiently. When an order is received for fulfillment; then, a machine will, automatically; find the product in the warehouse; transport the product from its storage site to the proper place for shipment preparations; and, update the warehouse logs to show the current state of that order. And, this might take anywhere from a few seconds, to a few minutes.

Automation in Action

Automation is widely spread throughout most industries. From petroleum to big pharma, and automobile production to aerospace engineering – and everything in-between. And, it is most widespread in manufacturing. 

At the end of the day; automation, decreases production expenses and safety hazards, while it increases the quality, production reliability, speed and revenue attained through a production process. So, we recommend scheduling a free consultation with an automation specialist, to learn about the custom automation solutions that might be available for your business.

4 Levels of the Automation Process

An automated process will usually contain several system levels. The 4 standard levels of an automated process, include; a Field level; Control level; Supervision and Production Control level; and, the Information level.

Level 1 – Field

The first task of an automated industrial process is to convert the information obtained into an electrical signal. This is done on the factory floor and will include the use of sensors and actuators. So, the field level of automation does not aim to make use of the data being obtained: It simply serves to gather information, and transfer it to the next highest level of the process.

The field sensors gather information in real-time – and, this can encompass real-time data, such as temperature, levels, pressure and more. Then, the data obtained by the field sensors is converted into an electrical signal and sent to the Control level.

In addition, actuators are used to manipulate and interact with the many technologies in the field. So, sensors gather the information for the controller level to analyze. Then, the controller sends a direction, or instruction, to the actuators – back on the field level. Actuators can be seen as control valves, relays, and motors.

Level 2 – Control

The control level is where industrial automation is most visible. This is where devices, such as CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machines, robots and PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) carry out the labor of an industrial process. The Control Level is the arms and legs of an automated system – since, the field level, is the systems eyes, ears, and other sensory receptors.  

PLCs, are a widely used industrial controller – as, they do functions, automatically, from inputs provided by the field sensors. Without sensors that talk to the controllers, a PLC would have no way to discern an action. The sensors and actuators give the means for production to be carried out by controllers.

Level 3 – Supervising and Production Control

With the field level, and control level; a process has the physical ability to be carried out automatically – however, there’s no way for the controller to make specific decisions based on the information. So, that is where the third level comes in…

Here, in the supervising and production control level, automated machinery is provided with the decision making abilities and troubleshooting skills to effectively make use of all the sensory inputs being received.

This includes a monitoring system for controlling the functions of an automated machine. The functions can include HMI (Human Machine Interface) – such as DCS (Distribution Control System) or SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) – parameter supervision, production goals, database archiving, and more.

Level 4 – Information and Enterprise

If, level 3 can be equated to an automated systems lower brain function; level 4, is equal to the entire systems higher brain function. Without it, the system would not run. So, beyond the administration of factory floor production, this level of the process deals with production planning, analytics and metric analysis, customer sales and order processing – and several other commercial functions.

The information and enterprise level of industrial automation facilitates the communication of each subsidiary level. This tier transfers independently acquired sensor observations to the other levels and tells them how to use it.

At the highest level (level 4), we can get information about the lower system tiers, as well as market information that relates to production. Then, moving down a level, information gets increasingly more specific to the details of that operations function. At the bottom level, we receive information about the minute-by-minute actions of any one piece of machinery.

Types/Categories of Industrial Automation

For industrial manufacturing automation, several categories exist, including; fixed, or hard automation; programmable automation; and flexible, or soft automation. Hence, each of these types has a specific use in an industrial setting.

Fixed Automation

Fixed automation, employs the use of equipment and machinery that has a singular function. For instance; Amazon’s shipping warehouses are filled with automated conveyor belts. These, exemplify fixed automation – as, the conveyor belt performs a single task: to take an object from here, to there. There are practically no variables to the systems functionality standards. So, fixed automation can be widely seen being used for assembling products, or processing inventory.

Programmable Automation

For system processes that need a moderate level of preliminary customization, there is programmable automation. Programmable automation is used for product assembly and processing, which requires changes to the equipment control programming.

Though, this type of industrial automation can be planned for specific products or functions – reconfiguring the systems programming is an involved, complicated process. That makes programmable automation the most useful for industrial processes which are performed in bulk. For example; industrial robots – seen in automotive assembly plants – are programmable. Once they are planned for a function, they will work reliably and consistently.

Flexible Automation

Flexible automation involves processes and equipment that are variable and changed on a semi-regular basis. This is much more rarely seen, due to the increased cost of this technology. However, flexible automation equipment and processes can be seen in action, in the Tesla Automotive factory – used to assemble Tesla’s electric cars.

Flexible automation is the most versatile – but, it might not the most logical solution for small businesses. But, that being said; as manufacturers use flexible automation more, and more – the price to run a flexible industrial automation system will decrease. Eventually – we hope – all automated technologies will merge with program flexibility.

Overview of Industrial Automation

Humans have been striving to automate mechanical processes, as early as the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin – and the paper press, years before. So, Industrial automation – only now – can truly come into its own, with the advent of computer systems and wireless communication technologies. Therefore, industries all over the world have already begun the vast transformation to automatic processing systems. So, the question – of, what is industrial automation? – has one, overarching answer: Industrial automation, is the now, and the future, for manufacturers, designers and administrators of every industry.   


Thanks for reading! We hope that this article helped to answer the question, of; what is industrial automation? You can find out more about the right type of automated system for your business, with automation consulting from Equip LLC. And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, for the most recent news and updates about the world of industrial automation.

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