Musings on Automation: Why and Wherefore Automation
Published on : Tuesday 06-09-2022
By mechanisation, human work force is reduced at the lowest rung, where unit of effort yields the minimum returns, says PV Sivaram.
Yet another wet Sunday. Anand and I set off on our regular walk which became not so regular because of ill-weather. It was again raining, and we donned our rain gear. It made walking difficult and conversation more so. On the top of it, Anand felt that his college studies were not going beyond cramming information into his head, without going into either the why or the what for, of any of it. In other words, it seemed like an extension of his studies at school level. The whole thing had this effect on Anand that he was quite disgruntled. He had recently come into close contact with some people who told him that automation was simply a ploy to get rid of workers and make more profits. I decided that time had come to remove these misapprehensions.
The reasons for introducing automation into manufacturing and services are many. At the top of the list are reasons to do with commercial benefits and competitive advantage. With automation, it is possible to make more products per hour, and more economically. In addition, automation works tirelessly, with no fatigue which humans could not do. Each product would come off the line with exactly same specifications, whereas a human would make products with some variability. Machines do not get moody, and the product made does not change according to the mood! More seriously, at the lowest rung of the workplace ladder, aspirants for such position – unskilled labour, become less and less.
Here Anand, who by now got a little brightened up – firstly that rain had stopped, and secondly that we were entering into the why and wherefore of the subject – piped up. What is the difference between mechanisation and automation? A really valid question, worthy of my nephew!
Mechanisation is designing of processes by which exertion of human effort is reduced. But in mechanisation, a continuous involvement of humans is necessary to give operate the mechanism, observe progress and make corrections. Hence this means that humans are present at the field of operation. Automation is the design of mechanisation by which involvement of humans at the time and place of operation is further reduced. The automatic machine knows the sequence of operations and can mindlessly repeat the sequence without boredom or fatigue.
Aha, jumps up Anand. So you admit that automation reduces the requirement of human work force! My friends were not wrong after all!
Well, I replied, not quite. By mechanisation, human work force is reduced at the lowest rung, where unit of effort yields the minimum returns. For example when heavy loads need to be transported, it is better to have a mechanical system like trolley conveyor than humans carrying the load. Secondly, exposure of humans to unhealthy atmosphere and unsafe conditions is reduced. This is a good thing! Even a simple task like taking a work piece from a bin to a machine can cause repetitive stress injury. And, by freeing humans from mindless routine work, we allow them time to do creative work.
Think of a different line of work, which occurs in services like banking or insurance. It is needed to copy items from one form – for example an application – into another form, say database entry form. This is a simple task, but when repeated dozens of time every day, introduces many errors. With an application like RPA – Robotic Process Automation – such tasks can be automated and humans can be deployed to check out on wrong entries or fraud or such aspects.
I concluded with this statement – Anand, what is it that you look for in your studies? Less of routine stuff and more creative challenges, he said. Automation is the way to go for you, I rested my case!
PV Sivaram, Evangelist for Digital Transformation and Industrial Automation, is mentor and member of steering committee at C4i4. He retired as the Non-Executive Chairman of B&R Industrial Automation and earlier the Managing Director. He is a past President of the Automation Industries Association (AIA). After his graduation in Electronics Engineering from IIT-Madras in 1976, Sivaram began his career at BARC. He shifted to Siemens Ltd and has considerable experience in Distributed Systems, SCADA, DCS, and microcontroller applications.
Sivaram believes strongly that digitalisation and adoption of the technology and practices of Industry4.0 is essential for MSME of India. He works to bring these concepts clearer to the people for whom it is important. He believes SAMARTH UDYOG is nearer to the needs of India, and we must strike our own path to Digital Transformation. Foremost task ahead is to prepare people for living in a digital world. He is convinced that the new technologies need to be explored and driven into shop floor applications by young people. We need a set of people to work as Digital Champions in every organisation.