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What is automation and why should you consider it?

Throughout October, we'll bring you a series of concise articles that cover the past, present, and future of automation within small to medium sized enterprises. This week, we share some insight on how automation has become what it is today and reasons why you may consider how to introduce automation into your business.

So, what exactly is automation? Defined as being the technique of making an apparatus, process or system operate automatically, automation is simply just a technological device designed to reduce human inputs in completing a process. Many of us probably associate automation with far-flung ideas Steven Spielberg brought to life in his hit Back to the Future trilogy. Remember the time-traveling DeLorean, intuitive hoverboards and that shoe that moulded to fit your foot size? Even though some of them don't exist yet (Nike did create these awesome kicks), automation itself is still everywhere you look. It's become such a big part of our day to day lives, that at times we tend to forget it's everywhere around us.

So where has automation come from? What are the positives and negatives? And why should you be thinking about how to incorporate it into your business?

History of the term Automation

D.S. Harder, an engineering manager with Ford Motor Company, was the first to use the term automation in 1946. He used it to describe their increased use of automatic devices and controls in their mechanized processes. But the origins of automation can be tracked back to the 18th century with the first industrial revolution in Great Britain. This was one of the early examples of technology being used to automate production processes. And while the workers initially accepted and welcomed the use of technology as it made their jobs easier, their opinions changed in the proceeding years. No, workers back then were fearful of what workers today worry about: Being made obsolete.

Current-Day Automation

We’re living in a time when computers, the Internet, and wireless technology are so widely diffused, we often take them for granted. Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly supplanting traditional human-based information processing. This is all very much what we expect from automation. It feels more techy…more futuristic. But it’s the combination of these technologies that have enabled a brave new automated world. How? Well, computers let us complete complex processes with speed and ease, whilst the internet created global connections. Wireless technology then expanded on the internet and let us connect to others in faster and more convenient ways. When AI was introduced, we were able to program computers with human-like characteristics which utilized machine learning abilities (power for AI to naturally develop through experience and recognition of patterns in data without hard-coding).

These inventions have led to the automation capabilities businesses of nearly any size have at their disposal. Thanks to computer technology, we can now control and manage complex manufacturing processes and achieve improved levels of productivity. More recently, the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) has also made automation much easier to implement. We now can connect devices across a network and have these devices communicate with each other.

What often goes unseen are the significant developments behind the scenes to make what’s currently available much better and cheaper. Because of this, more businesses are now choosing to automate. In 2020, 31% of businesses choose to fully automate at least one function and 66% of businesses piloted solutions to automate at least one business process1. Compare these figures to those from 2018 (29% and 57% respectively), and its clear automation is no passing trend.

Advantages of Automation

When it comes to using automation for your business, the advantages will differ depending on the industry your business is in. The benefits of these advantages will also vary. But there are some generic advantages that every business should expect to realise.

As manual labour costs continue to rise globally, businesses are looking to automation as a way of curtailing ballooning wages. In these situations, automation has given rise to proven solutions. Robotic process automation allows for reduced margins of error in production, with robots able to continuously replicate a high-quality finished product with well…robotic consistency. Industrial industries also benefit from a reduction in health and safety risks facing their employees. This lets employees work less hours and spend their time on more productive and innovative tasks. Automation also allows production lines to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Not only does this increase productivity, but it provides a competitive advantage in industries where production based on volume is a competitive requirement.

Disadvantages of Automation

But the benefits aren't without costs and automation comes with a couple of “gotchas”. Implementation of automation technology will create job displacement amongst both low skill and high skill workers. What happens to these people and their livelihoods? What's business and government's role in reskilling and redeploying these workers? In the past, workers were displaced without much concern for their long-term welfare. In a twist of fate, automation through smarter economic indicators and network monitoring, can predict and pre-empt the shocks associated with labour displacement.

What's more, the high initial capital investment required by businesses can make go/no go for automation decision makers hesitant. There are also flexibility and maintenance concerns in production lines as robotic machinery cannot replicate the flexibility of humans. In more extreme and unlikely scenarios, there could also potentially be issues with humans becoming dependent on automation technology.

“The risks include the possibility that workers will become slaves to automated machines, that the privacy of humans will be invaded by vast computer data networks, that human error in the management of technology will somehow endanger civilization, and that society will become dependent on automation for its economic well-being.” - Groover3

Why should you consider automation

Despite the disadvantages, the longer-term positives associated with automation suggest that it will continue to become the new normal. Although lower-skilled employees will likely be displaced, there are opportunities to retrain and upskill them into higher paying roles which will improves their quality of life long-term. Technological developments continue to see improvements in speed, versatility and efficiency in production. And even though these improvements have slowed in the last decade, there are still avenues of development yet to be explored or even discovered. Continued developments into IoT technology are also occurring, and with 30.9 billion IoT units predicted to be connected globally by 20252, it is becoming clearer that this truly is the way forward for a wide array of business not just those in “tech”.

We've just scratched the surface of the discussion about automation and how it can impact your business. But what do you think? Are robots a friend or foe? Have you considered adopting any automated technology to help you and your employees? If after reading this article, automation still seems like a far-off concept, take note: The future-proofed businesses of tomorrow must consider an automation inclusive strategy today!


1 Statista. (2020). Internet of Things (IoT) and non-IoT active device connections worldwide from 2010 to 2025 (in billions).

2 Schwarz, L. (2020). 32 Business Automation Statistics for 2021.

3 Groover, M. P. (2020). Automation. Groover, M. P. (2020). Automation.

Published Date:

October 7, 2021

Read Time:

5 minutes


Team Tidy