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Industrial Automation and Industry 4.0

What is Industrial Automation? The Benefits and Technologies

Wikipedia describes Industrial Automation as, “a wide range of technologies that reduce human intervention in processes, namely by predetermining decision criteria, subprocess relationships, and related actions, as well as embodying those predeterminations in machines.”

Industrial Automation first came in to being during the Industrial Revolution (Industry 1.0). The advent of steam led to large migration of workers from predominantly manual ‘cottage industries’ to large manufacturing plants. Over the last 200 years, automation has found greater prominence in industries that require machinery to work with minimal intervention.

The Current State of Industrial Automation – Industry 3.0

The ‘Digital Age’ is seen as the Third Industrial Revolution after Oil, Electricity and Mass Production (Industry 2.0). It’s also still the predominant world in which most manufacturing operates.

The majority of manufacturing facilities use automation and robotic technologies, aiming to increase performance by reducing errors and costs. It also helps save time on processes and eliminates the need for human operators. The advantages of leveraging Industrial Automation include:

Increased productivity

It is simply not possible for humans to work for long hours without a drop in accuracy. Automated control systems work for long hours without compromising accuracy, thus reducing waste and increasing productivity, quality and safety.

Improved product quality

An automated system will operate will be more consistent and uniform in meeting quality specifications. Monitoring industrial processes at all stages for the production of consistent quality goods is a hallmark of automation.

Reduced routine manual tasks and checks

Automated equipment running 24/7 increases productivity and results in a return on investment through saving salaries and other workforce-related costs.

Improved safety

An automated system will reduce or completely eliminate active participation by human operators in a process. Automated machines are able to work in hazardous and extreme environments and can make use of industrial robots in place of human workers. Reducing workers’ exposure to these processes and possibly harmful environments will have a positive impact on safety.

Automation has three main areas, and two of these predate Industry 3.0.

Fixed Automation

Alternatively, Fixed Automation uses specialist equipment, such as conveyors, to automate a process or series of operations for high production rates. These systems do not lend themselves to changes or variations.

Programmable Automation

In these systems, some flexibility in specific areas of the production process are possible. The NC machine touched on above and many industrial robots are examples of Programmable Automation; the machines are suited to medium or high quantity production as although changes are possible, they usually involve long physical and procedure setups.

Flexible Automation

Flexible Automation systems use a fresh command set delivered via code and involve little or no physical setup.

Industrial Automation Technologies

There are several key building blocks of an Industrial Automation system:

Programmable Logic Controller (PLC)

A PLC is an industrial grade computer control system, pre-programmed to carry out automatic operations in an industrial process. It takes inputs from an array of sensors, processes this data and delivers automatic controls to connected outputs.

PLCs usually consist of a CPU (Central Processing Unit), Analogue and Digital Inputs and the means to communicate to and from the machine(s) under control.

Distribution Control System (DCS)

A DCS adds a layer of computing power over the PLCs and other sensors; meaning control can be retained at a level local to the process while adding resilience to the system by distributing processor power. A DCS includes supervisory computers, collecting and displaying data. DCSs tend to be sourced from a single supplier, ensuring compatibility throughout the system.

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)

SCADA systems also add a layer of supervisory computers communicating with PLCs and RTUs (Remote Terminal Units), enabling a Control Room to make decisions that can override normal PLC and RTU functions.

SCADA systems log events, and this data can be analysed to optimise processes and functions over time.


Interestingly, robots are increasingly used in repetitive, complicated or dangerous situations, with the goals of increasing efficiency and utilisation, quality and employee safety. Additionally, robots can make daily life much more comfortable or convenient.

Automation and Industry 4.0

Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, is said to have defined the concept of Industry 4.0 to describe rapid changes in industries, technologies, and processes, fuelled by the integration of latest technological innovations, most notably Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Machine Learning (ML), robotics, large-scale machine-to-machine communication (M2M), Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart Automation.

These advancements support significant increases in productivity through the ability to connect previously siloed data. As a result, this allows for a holistic approach to management and decision making.


In summary, progress within an already significantly automated production line or facility need not be an ‘all or nothing’ ground up process with high initial costs and the need to determine scope and desired outcomes for the whole process before implementation. You may well find that some of the data and communication techniques and Smart Technologies that symbolise Industry 4.0 are already available to you – they are simply not used or even known about!


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