Is automation “good” or “bad”? There are arguments on both sides of this issue. On one hand the cost of production on a per item basis is generally lower, on the other hand it is often said that automation takes jobs from people. The following is from the first chapter of my book:
Human beings have been making things for many thousands of years. Originally most products were made on an individual as-needed basis; if a tool was required it was fashioned by hand and in turn used to make more tools. As time passed, more complex techniques were developed to help people accomplish fabrication and production tasks. Metalworking technology, weaving looms, water-driven grinding mills and the development of steam and gasoline engines all contributed to a greater ability to make various products, but things were still generally made one at a time by craftspeople skilled in various techniques. It was only after the industrial revolution and common use of electrical energy and mechanisms that manufacturing of products on a large scale became commonplace.
Some disadvantages of automation are:
• Technology limits. Current technology is unable to automate all desired tasks. Some tasks cannot be easily automated, such as the production or assembly of products with inconsistent component sizes or in tasks where manual dexterity is required. There are some things that are best left to human assembly and manipulation.
• Economic limits. Certain tasks would cost more to automate than to perform manually. Automation is typically best suited to processes that are repeatable, consistent and high volume.
• Unpredictable development costs. The research and development cost of automating a process is difficult to predict accurately beforehand. Since this cost can have a large impact on profitability, it is possible to finish automating a process only to discover that there is no economic advantage in doing so. With the advent and continued growth of different types of production lines, however, more accurate estimates based on previous projects can be made.
• Initial costs are relatively high. The automation of a new product or the construction of a new plant requires a huge initial investment compared to the unit cost of the product. Even machinery for which the development cost has already been recovered is expensive in terms of hardware and labor. The cost can be prohibitive for custom production lines where product handling and tooling must be developed.
• A skilled maintenance department is often required to service and maintain the automation system in proper working order. Failure to maintain the automation system will ultimately result in lost production and/or bad parts being produced.
A few advantages of automation are:
• Replacing human operators in tasks that involve hard physical or monotonous work.
• Replacing humans in tasks performed in dangerous environments such as those with temperature extremes or radioactive and toxic atmospheres.
• Making tasks that are beyond human capabilities easier. Handling heavy or large loads, manipulating tiny objects or the requirement to make products very quickly or slowly are examples of this.
• Production is often faster and labor costs less on a per product basis than the equivalent manual operations.
• Automation systems can easily incorporate quality checks and verifications to reduce the number of out-of-tolerance parts being produced while allowing for statistical process control that will allow for a more consistent and uniform product.
• Economic improvement. Automation can serve as the catalyst for improvement in the economies of enterprises or society. For example, the gross national income and standard of living in Germany and Japan improved drastically in the 20th century, due in large part to embracing automation for the production of weapons, automobiles, textiles and other goods for export.
• Automation systems don’t call in sick!
Overall, the advantages would seem to outweigh the disadvantages. It can be safely said that countries that have embraced automation enjoy a higher standard of living than those that have not. At the same time, a concern is often aired that automating tasks takes jobs from people that used to build things by hand. Regardless of the social implications, there is no doubt that productivity increases with the proper application of automation techniques.
What do you think? Is automation “good” or “bad”?
*Check out this follow-up post on June 6, 2016