Creating an Automated World

In humankind’s never-ending effort to be free from mundane tasks, we have applied automation to a variety of processes that govern our lives.

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This extends well beyond the industrial automation topics that are regularly explored in this magazine. Automation is all around us, and in many cases, it has become ubiquitous to the point that we don’t even recognize it.

Take for example the concept of the address book in your mobile phone. When was the last time you carried a paper address book around, looking up numbers and hand-dialing them? Some people might prefer the security of a paper address book, but the convenience of looking up a name directly on your phone is too much for most people to resist.

Some processes (like looking up a number and dialing) are repeatable and consistent enough that they are good candidates for automation. Some, however, still require a bit of human creativity and ingenuity, and thus are not easily automated. A good example of this is driving a car. We’ve not yet achieved the vision of driverless highways because the act of driving is a complex and chaotic process. Despite that, researchers at Google, Volkswagen, and other companies are developing and refining automated cars at a rate that now makes the vision seem achievable.

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Which processes are good candidates for automation, and which ones should remain manual? Usually, processes are automated in order to eliminate human effort/error, reduce variability and achieve a consistent result. This is great for some things, such as printing many copies of a painting, but not so great for other things, such as the generation of the original piece of art.

I like to drive cars, so the idea of a driverless highway is not so appealing. I see the virtues of safety, reduction of traffic congestion, and so on, but hope that there will still be an opportunity to take the car out of the automatic mode, and drive manually on the back country roads. This is not only a preference, but I believe it to be a requirement. Nobody can foresee all the things that could occur on the road, and unfortunately, sometimes things simply break. An automated system like this must have enough flexibility to allow for anomalies. Also, in my case, I want the flexibility to be able to drive the car manually in a more “creative” fashion.

The same thing holds true when considering how to automate processes in manufacturing and production plants. Most level 1 and 2 control systems offer some way for the operator to take the equipment out of automated mode and manually operate or jog the equipment. Level 3 manufacturing execution systems (MES) and manufacturing operations management (MOM) systems are all about automating the higher level processes in plants, but they also have to consider exceptions.

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Sometimes unplanned situations occur, requiring changes to production schedules, material substitutions and the like. There are also times when human perception or creativity identifies that the process can be improved in some way. Automated industrial processes need to be flexible enough to allow for human innovation. Businesses also need to be flexible enough to adapt to new ways of doing things, and they must foster a spirit of creativity, lest they become stagnant in old ways.

We will never achieve a completely automated world, and I don’t think we will ever want to live in one. There will always be the need and the desire for humans to create, maintain, and innovate. This must be considered at the societal level, as well as within our industry. When we endeavor to automate something, we must build flexibility into our solutions to allow for continued innovation.

Khris Kammer, kkammer@ra.rockwell.com, is Chairman of the Technical Committee of MESA International.

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