What is Automation?
At its simplest, “automation” describes any time a machine does a task independently. While we commonly hear the word “automation” when discussing computer processes, automation was conceptualized and implemented long before the advent of the computer.
A Brief History of Automation
Throughout recorded history, humans have been fascinated with the idea of “automatons” or, as we might call them today, robots, which could perform manual tasks that would be repetitive, laborious, or simply impossible for a human being. Automation as we know it was invented in the 1930s and 40s for the production processes that put cars on the road. Origination of the word is credited to D.S. Harder, who worked at the Ford Motor Company at the time. But the machines that could produce automobiles were the product of thousands of years of innovation, starting with the earliest wind- and water-powered machines of Ancient Egypt, the Middle East, and China.
The history of automation from the simple wheel and pulley to the modern airplane or factory is long and storied. Key technological developments like the steam engine, electricity, and computing are well-known, but other developments, such as feedback sensors, integrated circuits, and control theory, had as much to do with getting us where we are today. Take a look at Mikell P. Groover’s Britannica article for more information about the history of automation.
Perhaps no cartoon from the 1960s has proved as prophetic as The Jetsons, which showed a family of ordinary Americans living in Orbit City in the year 2060. The Jetson family video-chatted, read the newspaper on a screen, and lifted their feet to make room for a robotic vacuum. Since the 1960s, home automation has changed the way people around the world sleep, exercise, clean, cook, receive and send information, and talk to their loved ones. While not every development has been positive, it is difficult to imagine returning to the days of the landline, never mind the washboard.
Consumer products are not the only way in which automation has affected domestic life. Today automation can be embedded anywhere, even in the structure of the home. Think of thermostats, boilers, and alarm systems, all of which are equipped with sensors that allow them to “read” the conditions of the house and then act accordingly. Systems like these often require some human intervention, like turning the heat on the first cold day of fall, but they are a far cry from the stoves that kept the average American family warm well into the twentieth century.
As early as 1801, the idea of a programmable industrial machine (specifically the Jacquard loom) had been proven in practice. Since then, automation has changed the production process of nearly every product that is used or consumed worldwide. Automation makes industrial production more efficient and often safer, but the workers these machines replace are understandably concerned. As in the memorable episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Brain Center at Whipple’s,” the world where all work is done by machines is not necessarily a better one—unless we can find a way to make it so. There are no easy solutions to these questions, but automation is so crucial to manufacturing, it is virtually guaranteed that automation technology will only continue to improve.
Automation and IoT
IoT technology relies on automation. It’s not enough for a smart lock to know that a connected device is nearby—it has to unlock the door. Automation powers IoT, taking it from a network of sensors to a wealth of devices that make life easier. In both personal and business contexts, IoT devices have tremendous potential. Anywhere automation appears, it changes the way people relate to the world around them.
Find out more about IoT technology.
See how IoT technology affects business.