Though we tend to think of automation as a modern phenomenon, it's history is quite extensive.
The word automation, in the manufacturing sense, was coined by Ford Motor Co. Vice President Delmer S. Harder in 1948. However, automation can trace its roots back much further than that. 762 B.C. to be exact(ish).
Industrial automation in manufacturing entails the use of machines to carry out manufacturing processes with levels of speed, consistency, stamina, and precision beyond the capacity of a human worker. The machines can be powered using a multitude of methods including electrical, hydraulic, mechanical, pneumatic and computer.
The main benefits of manufacturing automation include reduced production costs, improved quality and reliability, and decreased waste.
The earliest mention of automation can be found in Homer's “The Iliad”. At the end of book one, Homer presents the tale of Hephaestus. Hephaestus is the Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire and volcanoes. He was tasked with manufacturing all of the weaponry used by the gods of Mount Olympus. To help him in his workshop he crafted automatons. Automatons were self-operating machines, or robots, fashioned from metal. They aided Hephaestus in his work and made possible the production of the magnificent equipment used by gods and mortals alike.
While, of course, the workshop of Hephaestus is unlikely to have actually existed, it's mention proves that automation is not a modern idea. Not by a long shot.
Manufacturing automation, as we recognize it, begins to take root in the in the 11th century. This period saw the large scale application of innovations in mining. As a population boom resulted in an increased market demand for metals, Medieval miners and metallurgists needed to derive solutions to the problems that limited metal production. Namely, the issue of draining water out of shafts and tunnels in underground mining. The widely adopted solution was to apply water power using waterwheels to power draining engines. This can been seen as a crucial step towards the automated processes we rely on in our factories today.
In 1722 we see the appearance of what is commonly referred to as “the mother of machine tools”, the lathe. The lathe is credited with being the first machine tool that led to the invention of all subsequent machine tools. Though it actually dates back to Ancient Egypt circa 1300 BCE, it wasn't until 1722 that the lathe was first mechanized in the form of a horse-powered horizontal boring machine.
By the 1800's the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. A heavy emphasis was placed on increasing factory productivity resulting in a transition to new, automated processes. In the textile industry, cotton spinning became mechanized – powered by steam or water. In the paper industry a machine for making a continuous sheets of paper on a loop of wire fabric was introduced. Known as the Fourdriner, the machine is still used in paper production today (though it has experienced many substantial upgrades over time). Influenced by the Fourdriner, the method of continuous production lead to the development of continuous rolling of steel and iron.
Factory productivity rapidly increased due to electricity in the 1920s and by the 1930s the automotive industry was leading the charge in industrial automation. It was during this time that industry was applying feedback controllers, a highly accurate electrical timer, and protective relays.
During the Second World War there was a great deal of focus placed on advancements in industrial automation – particularly in the production of tanks, warships, fighter airplanes.
By the 1980s the idea of “lights-out” manufacturing had captured the imaginations of industrial engineers. The goal became factories automated to such an extent that the manufacturing floor would be void of humans and robots would manage the entire process.
While this goal has not yet been realized, today's factory floors are home to a great deal of impressive automation. This includes, integrated manufacturing systems,smart sensors, high-speed information systems, cooperative robots, and the growing use of programmable automation controllers (PACs).