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So What is Industrial Automation?
Industrial Automation is the use of automatic control systems, such as programmable controllers or robotics, to complete a process in a factory, machine shop, or any other type manufacturing facility. Industrial automation is designed to replace the manual physical action and decision-making of humans with the use of mechanized equipment and logical, programmed commands.
However, industrial automation can go much deeper than just its surface-level definition. Take for instance this quote below by Lewis Mumford:
“We have merely used our new machines and energies to further processes which were begun under the auspices of capitalist and military enterprise… Not alone have the older forms of technics served to constrain the development of the neotechnic ecnomony, but the new inventions and devices have been frequently used to maintain, renew, and stabilize the structure of the old order… Paleotechnic purposes with the neotechnic means: that is the most obvious characteristic of the present order.”
We can see here that industrial automation was driven not just by technological forces, but social ones. At the end of World War II there were two principle options available for the design of automation controls: “”record-playback”” (R/P) and “”numerical control”” (N/C). Each option was designed to produce parts under the instruction of programs stored on on permanent mediums – to be self-acting or automatic.
This in turn reduced the amount of skilled labor required in the production process. However, there was a significant difference between these two options. R/P depended on a skilled machinist recording and making a program of his movements as he put the machine through its paces, which could then be played back indefinitely. N/C on the other hand eliminated the need for the machinist altogether by allowing the program to be created through computer programmers working directly from management blueprints.
Some historians believe that N/C won out in industrial automation not necessarily because it was the best option in terms of technical efficiency, cost effectiveness, or commercial viability, but because it dovetailed neatly with the separate and complementary interests of key groups in society. One can argue that the military and scientific communities play key roles in this story. The Air Force needed parts with extremely tight dimensional requirements for high-performance aircraft, and thus pushed for N/C because they believed it would produce machined components entirely free of human error. Scientists at MIT were already used to formal, objective solutions to problems, and thus joined the Air Force in supporting N/C.
However, R/P had a few commercial advantages over N/C and many machining businesses did not need the complex capabilities of N/C. So why did N/C win? One historian, David Noble, believed R/P lost out because it threatened to undermine the existing power relations in the society by lending itself “”to programming on the shop floor, and worker and/or union control of the process””. N/C won because it “held out the promise of greater management control . .. [and] seemed a step closer to the automatic factory”.
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