Skip to main content

Since the development of waterwheels over 6,000 years ago, humans have used the automation of tools to help with their lives. As workers navigate the new workplaces with the Internet, robotics, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), it is important that the workforce understands today’s automation and industrial robotics.



Whenever a tool does a job instead of a human doing a task by hand, this can be considered a form of automation. This can be as simple as a person turning a hand crank apple peeler to as complex as a fully automated electronic circuit board assembly line. The different types of automation include: mechanization, fixed/hard automation, programmable automation, flexible systems.

Mechanization: Automation of tools and the industrial revolution have developed and changed throughout the years. The earliest type of automation is known as mechanization. This type of automation occurs whenever a machine is assisting with the production of a product. 

A current example of this type of automation can be found in a machine shop. A simple example could be shown when a lead screw moves a vise on a milling machine. The screw is mechanizing/automating the process.

Fixed/hard automation: The next phase of automation is called fixed/hard automation. This occurs when a series of mechanisms are arranged in a specific order to create a product. Once the system is set up, it stays in a fixed sequence.

A modern example of this would be a firewood processing plant. A hydraulic arm places a log into the system, saws cut the log into firewood length, the system moves the wood to pass through hydraulic wood splitters, then a conveyor lifts the finished firewood and dumps it into a truck.

Programmable automation: As the type of automation becomes more advanced there are more feedback systems. There is also more flexibility in the types of products being produced by the system. This next level of automation is called programmable automation. The production process can be programmed by a computer, however, the production sequence is not changed very often. Because of this, lower cost controllers may be used in the system.

An example of this type of automation might be found in a foundry, which is a factory for casting metal parts. The loading of the raw metal into the furnace to melt could be automated. The molten metal being poured into the molds can be temperature controlled, and the cooling and the removing of parts from the molds can be computer controlled. However, depending on the product, it may be in production for a number of years before any major changes are needed in the system.

Flexible manufacturing systems: The most advanced level of computer-aided automation is known as a flexible manufacturing system. High level computer code controls most aspects of these systems. The tooling necessary for the product’s production is controlled by the computer system. The product is passed automatically from one process to another during its production. Inspection and sorting can also occur automatically within the system.

An example of this might be found in a production plant for vehicle parts. The production of these parts can be automated from start to finish. However, due to the frequent change to vehicle models the system needs to be flexible in order to make the changes.