In order to answer the question how does a process becomes automatic we should refer to the definition of automation. “Automation or Industrial Automation is the use of computers to control industrial machinery and processes, replacing human operators. It is a step beyond mechanization, where human operators are provided with machinery to help them in their jobs” (Naresh, 2005, p. 302). From this definition we may derive that key factor distinguishing automatic process is replacement of human labor with automated one. It is not necessarily there is no human labor at all, but we expect that there is no direct labor involved in the processing. Human labor can be used to input raw materials (or other resources) for processing, define processing parameters and to control the process. According to the definition of Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society (ISA), automatic means “functioning without intervention by a human operator under specified conditions” (Dimon, 2002, p. 34).
Among the most significant advantages and benefits of automatic processing we can distinguish the following:
- Increase in productivity. Automation allows processing resources almost without lead-times, while human labor has certain restraints. “Higher output can be achieved by performing an operation faster, or by reducing the time between operations” (Friedmann, 2006, p.144).
- Waste reduction. Automation allows to reduce waste to minimum since modern equipment makes no errors unless it is installed/set up incorrectly. This allows to keep materials usage variances under control.
- Cost reduction. In manual processing “labor accounts for a much larger fraction of total cost” (Friedmann, 2006, p.144), while automation allows to reduce human labor to minimum.
Flexibility in production and responsiveness. Automated processing gives flexibility in production volumes, allows to implement just-in-time and total quality management philosophy, while it is almost impracticable without automation. “Modern controls enable more responsive processing. For example, feed-forward arrangements enable major disturbances to be accommodated without the need for buffer storage, an obvious capital benefit. Operating strategies can be changed quickly to meet changed production requirements in response to market demand” (Love, 2007, p.469).
Other benefits may include (but not limited to): improved yield, increase in reliability, higher throughput, enhanced safety, better quality control, automation of accounting function and integration with other IT systems (Love, 2007, p.468).
Key risks associated with automatic processes are the following: * Design errors. Correction of errors, made on the design stage, is very difficult and expensive. In case of such errors most advantages and benefits of automated processing become doubtful. * Payback is not guaranteed because implementation of automatic processing requires significant capital expenditures. Additionally, in case of drop in demand (e.g. due to economic downturn), it is likely that fixed overheads related to automated processing will become a serious burden. * Dependency on computers. As automation depends on computers and informational technologies, there is a risk of hardware/software failures. * Dependency on maintenance. It is possible that qualified maintenance is not available when needed and this may increase in lead-time and operating costs.
- Dimon, T.G. (2002). The automation, systems and instrumentation dictionary. 4th ed. ISA.
- Friedmann, P.G. (2006). Automation and control systems economics. 2nd ed. Research Triangle Park: ISA.
- Love, J. (2007). Process automation handbook. A guide to theory and practice. London: Springer.
- Naresh, R. (2005). A modern approach to operations management. New Delphi: New Age International Publishers.
- Trevathan, V.L. (2006). A guide to the automation body of knowledge. 2nd ed. Research Triangle Park: ISA.