Automation: Man vs. Machine or Man and Machine

Weighing the realities of workforce, technology, and human safety in modern industry.

Larry Asher, director of operations, Bachelor Controls Inc.
Larry Asher, director of operations, Bachelor Controls Inc.

American folklore is home to many tales, some of which describe how people often view automation, i.e., as man vs. machine. For example, in the story of Paul Bunyan, the eponymous lumberjack is confronted by a chainsaw salesman who tells him he must “ get with the times, become modern," thus leading to the big contest at the core of the story. The chainsaw salesman narrowly defeats Paul Bunyan and Paul moves on, reportedly to Alaska.

Did Paul really need to move to Alaska? Could he not have adopted the chainsaw and became even more productive? Paul’s knowledge of the forest and the work of a lumberjack must have offered some value that could not be captured by the salesman and his chainsaw. Instead of the big contest being framed as man vs. machine, could we not introduce automated controls solutions as “man and machine?”

Consider how manufacturing has benefited from technological innovations. Automated control systems have been used on everything from simple stand-alone machines to highly complex processes. Automation has helped drive out inefficiencies by reducing manual labor, increasing throughput, providing a safer work environment, producing more consistent and reliable results, and other gains that might not otherwise have been attained. Today, the collection and analysis of data is offering even greater insight into manufacturing processes, facilitating continued improvements and delivering increased company profits.

We also need to look at the many factors that lead to the need for automated control solutions. Labor cost and regulatory standards are significant factors. In countries with a high cost of labor you tend to see more automation. The same is true in countries that have stringent regulatory requirements. Europe, having both, is a good example and is often seen as a leader in automation practices and standards. Human error is another significant factor. Human errors can result in inefficiencies, loss of production, invalid data and even more serious consequences when it involves safety. In fact, human error has been shown to be the largest contributor to accidents and disasters.

Some may argue that, thus far, I have presented a better case for the “man vs. machine” argument than “man and machine.” But first, let’s consider a few other factors—notably the widening skills gap faced by manufacturers and the human component of industry.

In 2011 more than 600,000 jobs went unfilled due to the skills gap. This is a common topic across industry and is of great concern to U.S. manufacturers. Contributing factors to this continuing problem include: the 2.7 million baby boomers who will be leaving the work force, continued economic improvements, growth in manufacturing, and re-shoring. Over the next decade an estimated 3.5 million jobs will become available and it is expected that nearly 2 million of them will go unfilled. Innovations in automation will play a substantial role in allowing manufacturers to remain competitive despite this gap.

Looking at the human component of industry, while it is true that human error is a primary cause contributing to accidents and disasters, it is also true that humans have the ability to reason and are better able to adapt to changes than an automated system. There is much to be said about an experienced operator with a keen sense of observation who can detect a problem and whose quick reaction and creative problem solving has saved the production run—not once, but time and time again. Such abilities highlight invaluable human skills that are learned over time and cannot be duplicated in an automated solution. Automated control systems are simply too complex and engineers are not able to take into account every possible scenario that might be encountered.

The challenge then is to find a balance between minimizing human error and maximizing system performance while keeping the operator proactively involved in the process. Successful automated control solutions need to involve more than hardware, software and equipment. We must consider the human component and be able to capture the strengths of each.

While some can argue that the current state of industry is best represented as “man vs. machine” or “man and machine,” the reality moving forward will more likely be characterized as “man with machine.” Humans will remain an essential part of the manufacturing process and the key to success in any automated controls solution.

Larry Asher is director of operations at Bachelor Controls Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Bachelor Controls visit their profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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