Industrial Automation: Brief History and Use in Manufacturing

What is Industrial Automation? 

Wikipedia defines automation as “the technology by which a process or procedure is performed with minimal human assistance.”   

So what is Industrial Automation? Is it different from the definition above, or are the terms the same? 

The terms are related.  Industrial automation uses control systems like robots, computers, or information technologies to handle industrial machinery as a replacement for human beings.  

The difference is in machinery control. Automation has used power from electricity, water, or other sources to run machines since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  But to maintain proper outputs, these systems still needed human beings.   Industrial automation limits the role of humans within the production process. 

When Did Industrial Automation Start?

Industrial automation has its roots in the work of Dick Morley, who created the first programmable logic controller in 1968, as well as distributed control systems developed by Honeywell engineers in the early 1970s.  Many companies built upon these foundations, pushing out innovative control elements, sensors, amplifiers, actuators, and other industrial automation components over the following decades.  

These early systems were often proprietary, meaning they did work well with each other.   In more recent years many industrial organizations have pushed for systems to offer normalized interoperability standards.  

What are the Benefits of Industrial Automation? 

In today’s fast-paced world, companies have to do everything they can to compete.  Industrial automation offers many advantages over traditional manufacturing including

  • Reduced production or labor costs.    Automated systems can run 24/7 without stopping.   This can reduce workforce costs as compared to salaries, benefits, training, and other costs associated with maintaining a large workforce.   And as many manufacturers realized in 2020, automated systems help maintain productivity even when there are labor shortages. 
  • Increased labor productivity.  One of the largest benefits of automation is the increase in productivity per employee.  While this may lead to a reduction in overall employment, some studies have shown that, due to higher productivity, salaries of jobs remaining will be higher than without automation. 
  • Improved product quality.  Automation brings conformity to specifications.  Monitoring controlled quality processes decreases the overall defect rate. 
  • Improved worker safety. Industrial automated systems allow robotics or automated systems to replace human workers where dangerous conditions exist.  This can include locations where there are chemicals, radiation, or temperature extremes.  

The Complexity of Industrial Automation Systems 

Industrial automation systems often have many devices and technologies working together. These systems have a specific hierarchical arrangement, as described below. 

By Hubert Kirrmann - Powerpoint, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Field Level 

This is the lowest level of automation devices.   Field devices send information to the next level for analysis and monitoring or convert signals for use.  Field devices include sensors and actuators. 

Sensors transmit information upwards to the control level, including data relating to flow, pressure, temperature, speed, or level.  The controller receives the data as electrical signals that allows it to know what is happening real-time.  

Actuators work in the other direction.  They convert electrical signals from the controller into mechanical processes to change flow, raise or lower temperature, increase or decrease speed, etc.  Examples of actuators include relays, flow control valves, dc and servo motors, and pneumatic actuators. 

Control Level

The control level is made up of automation devices that drive actuators and process sensor data.   A CNC machine is a control level device.  But the most widely used control level device in industrial automation is a Programmable Logic Controller, or PLC.  These devices deliver automatic control functions using modules like CPUs, analog or digital inputs and outputs, and various communication modules.  Many companies have offered PLC systems, but some of the most popular were developed by

  • Siemens
  • Rockwell Automation/Allen Bradley
  • Schneider Electric
  • ABB
  • Mitsubishi
  • Honeywell
  • Koyo
  • Keyence

Supervisory/Production Control Level

This level of industrial automation systems sets machine start and shutdown times, takes care of production targeting, supervises parameters, and maintains historical archiving data.  

At this level, most systems are controlled by either a Distributed Control System (DCS) or a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system.  DCS systems emphasize process-level control that delivers data to operators, while SCADA systems are event-driven. SCADA offers a wider range of communication protocols.  DCS systems tend to have integrated operator interfaces and tag databases, while these must be added and imported to SCADA systems. 

Enterprise Level 

This top level of industrial control is the management system.  It includes customer and market analysis, production planning, order and sales systems, etc.  This is where information begins and ends.   It will include whatever communication network the system is built upon.  Networks often used in industrial applications include CAN, DeviceNet, RS485, Profibus, and Foundation Fieldbus.  

Examples of Industrial Automation

To give you a better idea of what falls under the umbrella of “industrial automation” here are some examples. 

 Fixed Automation Systems

In these systems, there are rarely any changes to operations.  Mass production systems and flow processes using conveyors are fixed process systems.  These include: 

  • Material handling conveyor systems
  • Paint and coating automation processes
  • Automated assembly lines

Programmable Automation Systems 

Programmable systems can change using electronic controls.  They are often used in batch process production. A "batch" can number a few dozen to thousands of units.  Programmable automation systems may require significant reprogramming time.  Examples include: 

  • CNC machines
  • Food processing facilities that change from one flavor or product to another
  •  Motion applications

Flexible Systems 

Flexible Automation Systems are typically computer-controlled.  This can include CNC machines.  Computers are controlled by humans.  Flexible systems can mange changes to production schedules and product changes with relative ease.  An example of this would be a job shop or small batch machine shop. 

Jobs Related to Industrial Automation 

Industrial Automation related jobs employ close to 10% of the American workforce.  Many of these jobs are well-paying.  Some do not require a college degree.  Here are examples of some jobs related to automation. 

Semi-Skilled Positions: 

  • CNC Machine Operator
  • Finishing Technician
  • Food Processing Operator
  • Machine Setter and Operator
  • Mold Technician
  • Quality Control Technician
  • Sheet Metal Fabricator

Skilled or Technical Positions: 

  • Automation or Robotics Technician
  • CNC Programmer
  • Electrical or Electronics Drafter
  • Industrial Electrician
  • Industrial Engineering Technician
  • Industrial Machinery Mechanic
  • Machinist
  • Maintenance Technician
  • Mechanical Drafter (CAD)
  • Tool and Die Maker

Management Positions

  • Design & Engineering Manager
  • Logistics Manager
  • Maintenance Manager
  • Manufacturing Manager
  • Operations Manager
  • Quality Manager
  • Safety Manager
  • Shipping Manager

Professional Positions 

  • Automation Engineer
  • Electrical Engineer
  • Food Scientist
  • Electromechanical Engineering Technologist
  • Industrial Data Scientist
  • Industrial Engineer
  • Mechanical Engineer
  • Mechatronics Engineer
  • Network or Cybersecurity Specials
  • Quality or Reliability Engineer


ActuatorsAutomation jobsCnc machineDistributed controlFixed automationIndustrial automationPlcRockwell automationScadaSensors