What is Automation?
Automation describes the replacement of human labour with technology. Businesses use automation to improve efficiency and precision, whilst also reducing costs and stress. Common methods of automation include robotics, process automation software and intelligent automation solutions, such as AI and machine learning.
History of Automation
The term ‘automation’ was coined in the 1940s, when an engineer at the Ford Motor Company used it to describe the increased mechanisation of automobile assembly lines. However, the concept of automation has existed for much longer.
The ancient Greeks and Egyptians designed self-directed machines for practical uses and entertainment, including water clocks and mechanic animals. These ideas were further developed during the Middle Ages and Renaissance Era, when Ismail al-Jazari and Leonardo di Vinci invented machines to automate manual tasks, such as chain pump systems, the automated bobbin winder and self-propelled cart.
But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that automation really took off. The refinement of water, steam and coal power during the 18th century led to the invention of new machines, such as the power loom and spinning jenny, which were designed to replace human labour and maximise output. This caused the decline of rural, artisan economies and disrupted work and home life for millions of people.
Advancements in steel, electronics and digital technology sparked further Industrial Revolutions during the 19th and 20th centuries, which accelerated automation, but also improved living standards worldwide. We are now living through the Fourth Industrial Revolution – an era characterised by intelligent automation, driven by solutions such as the cloud, robotics and AI.
Types of Automation
Many different types of automation exist. Industrial automation, such as machines and robotics, replaces manual human labour and is therefore common in the manufacturing, automotive, energy and agricultural sectors. Business automation, such as IT Process Automation and Business Process Automation (BPA), replaces human cognitive ability and is popular in many different industries, including IT, finance, healthcare and customer service.
Here’s a definition of each type of automation:
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI is an intelligent form of automation, using software to mimic or even surpass human intelligence. It uses algorithms and logic to find patterns in data and simulate human cognition, such as problem-solving. One of the most common forms of AI is machine learning, which learns and improves from experience, without the need for programming or human intervention.
Businesses use AI and machine learning to:
- Simplify customer support e.g. chatbots
- Predict financial risk, fraud or performance
- Detect malicious or unusual network activity
- Analyse data to find sales and marketing trends
- Identify people or objects in images and videos
- Make medical diagnoses and health predictions
- Discover positive and negative sentiment in text
- Recognise speech and perform actions or identify languages
- Predict customer preferences and product recommendations
- Enhance an APIwith AI capabilities, making it smarter and more secure
Although it can be a controversial topic, AI has the potential to support humanity in ways we never thought imaginable. Because it can automate complicated tasks and make calculations that the human brain cannot, AI will one day drive advancements in critical areas, such as healthcare, education, scientific research, cybersecurity and sustainability.
Examples of enterprise AI solutions include IBM Watson, TensorFlow, Salesforce Einstein and Azure Machine Learning Studio.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is software that enables businesses to build and manage software robots. These bots are programmed to automate simple back-office tasks, such as populating spreadsheets or sending emails. This saves time and enables teams to focus on more innovative work. RPA bots often learn by recording processes or screen scraping (i.e., taking information that they see on the screen and using it to populate forms later). Other examples of RPA solutions include Blue Prism and Power Automate.
Business Process Automation (BPA)
Business Process Automation (BPA) software is designed to automate complex business processes with multiple components. It is controlled from a central API, as it involves building automated workflows and integrates with other areas of IT infrastructure. Businesses often use BPA to automate HR and finance processes, such as onboarding staff or processing invoices. It is also popular with sales and marketing teams, who use BPA-powered CRM solutions to automate and manage sales pipelines, call scheduling, email campaigns and social media. Examples of BPA solutions include HubSpot, Nintex, Kissflow and Mailchimp.
IT Process Automation
This method of automation uses software or scripting to streamline IT tasks and processes. It has become a core component of digital transformation, driving agility and streamlining complicated workflows. IT process automation tools work by monitoring the system for predefined events, such as routine IT tasks, technical issues or malicious activities. Once the tool detects an event, this triggers an automated workflow and the task is actioned, or the issue is resolved.
A wide range of IT tasks can be automated, including:
- Security monitoring
- Writing SQL queries
- DevOps processes
- Cloud backup
- Helpdesk ticketing
- Password management
- Cloud workload management
- Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)
- File and event log monitoring
- Network and database management
An advanced form of IT process automation, called orchestration, is also becoming popular. Orchestration is the co-ordination and management of several tasks, systems or applications at once, leading to a single process or workflow. It is often used by DevOps teams to accelerate time-to-market, but can also be applied to the cloud, servers, containers, databases, incident management and much more.
Examples of IT process automation solutions include Puppet, Ansible, Jenkins, Kubernetes, VMware, Darktrace and Selenium.
Industrial automation uses physical hardware, such as machines and robotics. It is common in factories and warehouses and is used to drive more efficient mass production, or to perform complex or dangerous tasks. An example of industrial automation is the use of robotic arms in automotive factories to weld and paint cars.
There are three categories of industrial automation – fixed, programmable and flexible. Machines using fixed automation are programmed to perform one task, which can be inflexible, as new machines need to be purchased to program a new task. Programmable automation offers more flexibility, enabling users to program new tasks as and when required. It is common in batch production, for example, where one batch has a different design to the next. Flexible automation also enables machines to be reprogrammed easily, but it has the added benefit of zero downtime between programs and can mass produce without the need for batches.
Advantages of Automation
The machines created during the Industrial Revolution transformed work, as they were built to replace human labour. People worked in factories under harsh conditions, operating machines built to drive mass production and maximise profit for the factory owner. This shift towards an industrial economy caused deep societal change, having an impact on the family, health, housing and many other aspects of everyday life.
Looking back at this period of change, it can be easy to fear automation. Because technologies such as AI and robotics have the power to think and move like us, some people believe that humans will one day become obsolete. But although automation is certainly disruptive, it brings many positive changes that could lead to a much better future for us all.
Here are some of the advantages of automation:
- Cuts costs, increases efficiency and enables faster time-to-market
- Improves the quality of goods and services, increasing customer experience
- Reduces time-consuming or boring tasks, so staff gain more time to innovate
- Helps businesses to forecast and perform complex tasks, such as in healthcare
- Eliminates arduous manual labour, which harms people’s health and can be low paid
- Helps businesses to make sense of complicated data – essential as data footprints grow
- Creates a new job market, for example, robotics maintenance and AI specialists
OVHcloud and Automation
As a cloud solutions provider, we understand how to leverage the power of automation. To help you build and orchestrate automated processes, we offer a portfolio of cloud automation tools for public cloud, including Managed Kubernetes and Workflow Management.