Is Automation Necessary?

An Alarming Look at Manufacturing Processes.

You may have been told that it is important to automate as much of you production processes as you can. In a perfect world, free of any constraints, you might be able to automate everything. But we don’t live in a perfect world, which is why engineers always need to determine our client’s constraints before recommending that our clients automate their entire production process. Let’s take a quick look at what automation is, what alternatives there are, and what constraints are typical for manufacturers.


Automation refers to any system which automates a process. Automations can be as simple or as complex as you need them to be. You can look to your tea kettle for an example of a simple automation. Let’s compare the process of boiling water in a traditional (manual) kettle to the process of a standard electric kettle:

Boiling Water in a Manual Kettle:

  1. Put desired amount of water into kettle.
  2. Turn on heat source.
  3. Place kettle on a heat source.
  4. Remove kettle from heat source when kettle starts to whistle (engineers call this an alarm).
  5. Turn off heat source.
  6. Remove boiled water from kettle.

Boiling Water in an Electric Kettle:

  1. Put desired amount of water into kettle.
  2. Plug kettle into electrical outlet.
  3. Press on button. This tells the kettle to heat its coils which then boils the water. The kettle has an automated shut-off which stops the coils from heating after the water has boiled.
  4. Unplug kettle from electrical outlet.
  5. Remove boiled water from kettle.

As you can see these procedures are very similar and have nearly identical outcomes. In fact, both kettles require an operator to provide the heat source. From a process standpoint the only automation here is that the heat source is automatically shut off in the electric kettle. If you wanted to you could automate every step in the process. This would save you a lot of time for making a cup of tea, but may not be practical.

If there is a part of your production process that you’d like to automate, then the next step is to determine if it is practical or if there is an alternative that may serve you better. Engineers know to always Keep It Simple! Or at least as simple as it can be.


The alternatives to automating processes are to do nothing, to utilize alarms, or to create operating procedures that eliminate the need for automation. Depending on what you are manufacturing any of these options may be right for you. Since the first is self-explanatory I will focus on the latter two.


In the example above, the kettle uses a whistle to alert the operator that the water is boiled. Alarms can be useful where time is not of the essence in a process. When making tea you can leave the water boiling for an extra minute or two while you complete another task. There is a risk of boiling the kettle dry, but the constant noise from the kettle is likely enough to get your attention before that happens.

Operating Procedures

If you know that a certain process always takes x amount of minutes, then you can simply create an operating procedure that accounts for that. This procedure would be akin to boiling water in a normal pot. Fill the pot, put it on a heat source, confirm after x amount of minutes (or after performing certain other tasks that take that much time) that the water is boiled, and then remove the water from the pot. Here there is a greater risk of the pot boiling dry but you may deem that an acceptable risk.