Advantages and disadvantages of automation in manufacturing

Automation has increasingly been implemented in many areas of manufacturing; in fact, the concept of ‘lights out’ manufacturing ‒ where there is no need for workers because the processes have been 100% automated ‒ has already been introduced. One example is the Philips factory in the Netherlands, where 128 robots produce electric razors and just nine human quality assurance workers are involved at the end of the process; however, some manufacturing that involves many different processes, such as the production of automotive wiring looms, continues to be largely carried out by hand.

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According to the Economist, manufacturing will continue to need people, machines will need to be serviced and given instructions, and some tasks such as assembling components are too fiddly to be done well by robots.

Advantages of automation

The advantages of automation include increased productivity; greater consistency of products, processes or output; improved quality; and reduced labour costs. Tasks that are monotonous or physically hard are often better carried out by robots, with robots also ideal for replacing human labour in dangerous environments such as parts of the nuclear industry or for fire fighting. Tasks that are beyond the capability of human workers due to speed, weight, endurance or size are also often automated.

In addition to reducing production time or increasing productivity, automation can free workers to undertake other tasks and provide jobs in developing, maintaining and running the new processes.

Disadvantages of automation

Development costs may be unpredictable and may exceed the savings made by the automation. Costs of automating a system are very high initially, although the costs can be spread over time and over many units of the product.

Companies such as that manufacture custom products for different customers need human workers to produce drawings and prototypes before the general manufacturing process can begin.

Automated systems can be more susceptible to security threats than systems that rely on human intelligence. According to a report in the Mirror, the airspeed sensors failed on the Air France Flight 447 in June 2009, killing 228 people. The article suggests that had a more experienced pilot been at the controls at the time, the disaster might have been averted.

While some areas of manufacturing can benefit greatly from automation, others still need human input at all stages of the process for efficiency and safety.

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