Automation technology comprises all processes and work equipment that enable plants and systems to run automatically. These include machines, apparatus, equipment and other devices. Human intervention is minimal.

The engineering discipline takes a multidisciplinary approach and encompasses both mechanical and electrical engineering. The aim of automation is to enable plants and machinery to automatically perform work processes efficiently and at a low error rate. Various levels of automation can be achieved, depending on the complexity of the systems involved. The higher the degree of automation, the less intervention needs to be performed by humans to control the process. In order to further the performance of your systems, it is important to develop the capability of your central components. Harmonic Drive AG is your competent partner when it comes to high-class drive solutions for controlling automation equipment.

Benefits of automation: work relief and increased performance

Automatic systems have many advantages. They relieve people from having to perform dangerous and physically exhausting activities. Machines are able to perform tiring routine jobs. It is not without reason that advances in automation are associated with population growth. This increase in the number of people brings with it a rise in the demand for high-quality goods, which among other things, is also what brought about mass production.

In addition to taking the strain off people, automation has a number of other benefits. Machines are able to operate continuously and with a high level of performance, and their tempo considerably surpasses the speed of manual processes. Moreover, automation improves the quality of products and reduces personnel costs.

Early origins of automation

The origins of automation go all the way back to the eighteenth century. In 1785, Edmond Cartwright invented the fully mechanised loom. Based on perforated wooden boards, his invention made it possible for people to produce fabrics with uniform patterns. The loom was originally driven by a crank handle turned by two sturdy men. The basic principle of mechanisation as exemplified by the loom represented the first decisive step towards what would become the textile industry.

A short time later, in 1788, James Watt laid the foundations of modern control technology. He transferred the principle of the centrifugal governor used in milling to mechanical engineering; this component was used to control steam engine speeds.

Areas of application in which automation is employed

Automation technology and its associated systems are meanwhile encountered in virtually every area of life. Domestic life is already virtually unthinkable without the benefits of product automation, as exemplified by the dish washing machine. Anti-lock braking systems and automatic gearboxes provide enhanced safety and driver comfort in motor vehicles. Automation is also widespread in the world of entertainment electronics; one modern example is the so-called smart home.

Automation in production environments is a particularly important area of application. For example, both process engineering systems and systems in power stations and production plants can be equipped with automatic components. Other sectors that rely considerably on these solutions include the automotive industry, mechanical engineering, the electrical industry and aircraft production. The demand within industry for intelligent automation equipment continues to grow and does not appear to be showing any signs of stagnation for the foreseeable future.

Structure of automatic systems

An automated system consists of a plant, a controller in the form of an automation computer, and peripheral devices. This environment is equipped with sensors that collect control data and actuators that perform controller commands. Interconnected fieldbus systems are a further element. They link the individual automation components together with the controller.

Functions of automation technology

Automation systems have a variety of key functions, which include measuring and controlling. Additional system operations include regulating and communicating. The control room - the so-called human-machine-interface  - is the technical facility from which all processes are monitored.

The individual automation technology subsystems contain several specialised components. Measurements are generally performed with the aid of sensors. They are able to detect and determine the prevailing physical and chemical conditions, such as humidity, pressure and heat. A distinction is made between passive and active sensors. A wide range of such detectors has been specially developed for automated systems. 

Digital control of systems in the field of automation is performed using a flexible programmable logic controller (PLC). Control commands are transmitted to the system via actuators, such as motors, valves or magnets. Such systems used to contain permanently wired connection-programmed controllers, in which any changes to the programming necessitated modifying the connections. With a PLC system, it is sufficient simply to modify the program. This controller was developed in the USA in 1968 and was introduced to Europe in 1973.

Regulating consists of continually measuring the parameter in question and comparing it with a target value. If the measurement deviates from requirements, an adjustment is made. The procedure is controlled by computer.

Automation technology has a complex communication system that involves many different sensors and actuators. Components are connected to each other via a fieldbus system, such as a Profibus or CAN Bus. The system regulates the way that a single line is used by several participants, on the basis of standardised protocols. Nowadays, automation components also communicate via Ethernet. It is also possible to conduct remote maintenance of systems through an Internet connection.

Operating and monitoring via the man-machine interface

Users of automation systems are able to interact through the user interface. By making use of this so-called human-machine interface (HMI), they are able to obtain a rapid overview of all essential operational procedures. They can monitor the system, operate machines and intervene in process flows with decision-making certainty. Those in charge of the system are able to access information via an operating panel or process visualisation system. The panel is equipped with signal lamps, keys and display units. Software-based visualisation takes place via an operating terminal. Modern HMI technologies can be integrated in the automation systems by plant operators via open, standardised interfaces.

High-quality components in automation technology

There are a number of components involved in an automation system’s control and regulation, and these include special drive technologies. Plant operators are advised to cooperate with a qualified and experienced provider. Harmonic Drive AG develops, engineers and produces individual drive solutions for many fields, including robotics and automation. The company’s gears, motors and other components are suitable for modular use.

Safety requirements in the use of automatic systems

Any breakdown of an automatic system, for instance in a chemical factory, will bring about safety risks. Accordingly, there is a stringent demand for reliable operation in this field. A number of directives and safety regulations are in place in the field of automation technology, for example, the directive VDI/VDE 2180 of the Association of German Engineers, which sets out important specifications governing the use of process control technology.

Where systems are connected to the Internet, IT experts should secure the communication structures to protect them from possible compromising or espionage attacks.

The future: Industry 4.0

Automation technology is a key industry on the path towards Industry 4.0. The term stands for intelligent, digitally interconnected systems that enable largely independent industrial production. In a smart factory, humans, plants, products and logistics are interconnected through communication channels, an approach which is sometimes seen as a fourth industrial revolution.