Machine automation – revisiting the history

Most of the earliest automatic systems were developed in Greece, and one of them that survived is the “Antikythera mechanism” (150-100 BC) which was designed to calculate the positions of astronomical objects.   The next level of breakthrough was the first programmable machine, developed in 60 AD, by a Greek engineer called Hero (Article).  He constructed a three-wheeled cart that performed stunts in front of an audience.  The power came from a falling weight that pulled on string wrapped round the cart’s drive axle, and this string-based control mechanism is exactly equivalent to a modern programming language (Video).

The above examples are mainly presented to demonstrate “how the advancement in mechanization techniques” happened more than 2000 years ago.  The word automation itself comes from the Greek word Automaton (acting on one’s will).  It is used to describe non-electronic moving machines, especially those resembling human or animal actions.  From the examples available in literature, earlier motivation for automation was mainly for entertainment.  It was a point of pride for a town or kingdom to have these mechanical machines.  Many examples are available on the Wikipedia pages of Automaton (Ancient Automaton).

The era of automatons for amusement and pleasure continued till 17th – 18th century, when the need for automation during the “Industrial Revolution” or “Machine Age” was noticed.  With the invention of new energy technologies (steam engines, spinning jenny, water frame etc.), better systems/mechanism were developed especially around industries like weaving, milling, power generation etc. During the Industrial Revolution, the mechanization of systems reduced manual intervention and increased productivity. Hence, the main motivation of automation (apart from fun) was the development of productive systems in the vicinity of the similar technology. (Link)

Once the invention of the transistor occurred in the 1950s, numerical control of machines was possible and automation really began to fly.  The systems were transformed from open loop to closed loop with help of electronics.  Even systems started developing around electronics because it makes processes faster (eventually productive).  Quite surprisingly, the focus on mechanization shifted to electronics.  Purely Mechanical Systems were transformed to Electro-Mechanical systems, development of communication systems, and development of software domain started, and ultimately the invention of web services.  Because of development of such complex systems, the motivation for automation has branched itself into three parts, namely:

  • Automation for making process efficient – Examples from automated factories FANUC), where the light-out manufacturing started from 2001, robots are manufacturing other robots and the factory can run unsupervised for as long as 30 days.
  • Automation for making systems secure – Ballot box and ATM are the best examples where automation has helped the technology to work with security.
  • Automation for solving complex problems – There was a time when flight was very difficult, but with advanced automation practically complex, “Automated guided flight vehicles (unmanned)” are possible.

In recent years and in the near future, with the exponential development in Artificial Intelligence, complex algorithms, approaches to solve NP hard (nondeterministic polynomial time) problems, etc., automation has evolved into different levels.  There are also improvements in fabrication of micro-electronics components and along with flexible electronics technology, machines and automation can go to the miniature level.  In the years to come, the motivation for automation will be to make self dependent systems, self learning systems, systems which can work in teams and compact systems. Some of them are already developed like ASIMOs in research labs (Video). Upcoming areas for development (from practical perspective), are the robots/machines like equivalent to insects, animals, humans working in all terrains/environments, communicating with their similar machines.

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