Industrial automation (from the ancient Greek auto, ‘self-guided’) is the use of computerised and electromechanical systems or elements for industrial purposes. Nowadays these complex and sophisticated systems involve more and more components which are interconnected upstream, [1] towards business management systems. Robots are the protagonists of automation. The term robot became popularised due to the success of the play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) written by Karel Čapek in 1920. In the English version of the play, the Czech word robota, which means forced labour or worker, was translated as robot.

It is clear that automation and robotics are becoming unstoppable, just as printing, tractorization and running water were. Nowadays, humans are unable to compete with machines in terms of their velocity and strength, and it would not make sense to try to do so. Nonetheless, machines cannot compete with us in terms of our soft skills or essentially human skills, and perhaps it is the professions which are closely linked to these which most need to be boosted. There is a key ability which can be placed in between physical capacities and soft capabilities: dexterity. There are certain processes in which human dexterity is better than that of machines, and this is the case when working with living, heterogeneous and delicate raw materials. In fact, the main challenge in implementing automation systems in the Agriculture, Food and Fisheries sector for example, is to be able to create more capable and skilful systems while at the same time managing to maintain competitive prices.

Socially speaking, the implementation of automated systems is being viewed much more favourably in recent years, with leading international referents such as the World Economic Forum [2] suggesting that automation will actually generate much more work that it will destroy. Within the industry, the plant operators are discovering first hand that the processes which are now being automated tend to be the most tedious and routine tasks, and the ones which cause most harm to the body and mind, that is to say, the most inhumane jobs.

In other sectors which use heterogeneous materials with high production rates, 4.0 industry models have already been implemented, and in fact, traditional production systems are no longer even being contemplated. New production lines which will be able to offer total connection and extended automation are being devised. This is the perspective for the future. Total connection in which the input of raw materials or semi-processed materials from the supplier is synchronised and controlled, automatically processed, and the products’ exit from the factory is synchronised and controlled with the final client or with the next stage of the production chain. Production lines which incorporate special claws which allow for the implementation of extended automation systems and which offer more efficient solutions that are more respectful of the raw materials, as well as pick and place systems which allow for repetitive processes to be performed within a reduced timeframe while also minimizing errors, and collaborative processes which allow for joint work between robots and humans, therefore offering maximum security are constantly being designed and developed. Mecatronics, which is the automatic control of mechanical systems also enters into play in these new production lines and programming also plays a fundamental role. The new capacities offered by instrumentation and mecatronics, and the developments being made into these systems are converting these 4.0 factories into state-of-the-art facilities. The main players are located in countries with very high labour costs. The numerous positions these factories are able to offer are for highly qualified workers who will be in charge of the management and control of the machines, in fact, in these types of production plants there are hardly any operators given the high levels of automation which have been implemented. The humans control the machines and the machines manufacture the product [₃].

For the majority of the less sophisticated production plants, the so-called 4th industrial revolution is arriving much more gradually. Thanks to the new capacities that these technological developments offer there will be more opportunities to accelerate these automation and digitization processes, even in small or medium sized companies. It is clear that automation allows for unprecedented improvements to be made that can enhance productivity and therefore make companies more competitive.

[1] Matthews, S. Designing Better Machines: The Evolution of the Digital Twin Explained; Keynote Delivered at Hannover Messe: Hanover, Germany, 2018. [Google Scholar]

[2] World Economic Forum. The Future of Jobs Report 2018

[3] Bengt Östling, APR 06, 2017. Robotisation and Mercedes bring a thousand new jobs to Finland.

 

Hugo Barreiro

Industry 4.0 R&D Engineer