Automation in factories

Factory automation has allowed companies to leverage their workers’ labor to increase productivity many thousandfold and to produce goods that could not be produced by traditional craft methods.

The automation of factories began with the application of mechanical power to replace human and animal muscular effort, particularly in heavy industry. Such devices as windmills and watermills can be traced back to classical antiquity, but they truly began to come of age during the late eighteenth century with the development of the steam engine.Automation in factories

The mercantilist policies of the British crown prevented the American colonies from developing their own industry, but after the Revolutionary War, northern business leaders began to develop their own textile and other industries, helped by protectionist tariffs that made it difficult for the cheap goods of industrialized Britain to compete. Soon cities such as Lowell, Massachusetts, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were dark with the smoke generated by the thousands of power-driven textile and steel mills.

Assembly line robots weld the cab of Chrysler’s 2009 Dodge Ram pickup at the Warren Truck Plant in Warren, Michigan.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The development of machine tools for the forming and shaping of various components in large numbers led to various mechanical controls that permitted manufacturers to reach far finer tolerances in their parts than had been possible by depending on human senses. Throughout the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, industry continually improved on these control systems, at first with mechanical controllers and later with electromechanical ones.

Enter the Digital Age

The development of the computer meant that even more sophisticated automated controls could be applied to industrial processes, particularly in fields such as aeronautics and astronautics in which high-value parts had to be made to extremely close tolerances. Human eyes and hands simply did not have the precision to guide the machines that closely, and many companies were routinely failing ninety-nine out of a hundred parts. By using computers to control the milling machines, companies were able to reverse those ratios, failing only 1 percent of the parts they produced.

The next major development was the construction of the robotic arm, which could move in three dimensions to perform complex tasks. By the 1960’s, computer control had reached the point at which such robotic arms could be produced not just as experimental devices but as productive equipment.

The first tasks to be automated by Industrial robotsindustrial robots were both dangerous and repetitive. The danger involved in these tasks meant that costly safety precautions had to be taken to protect workers. For instance, the task of spray painting automobiles involved enormous amounts of electricity to run the ventilation fans that brought fresh air to the workers and the purchase and maintenance of breathing apparatuses for workers who had to operate in spaces that could not be ventilated. If a company could replace the human spray-gun operators with robots, supervised by a single human operator in a ventilated booth overlooking the factory floor, the cost of the robots could quickly be recouped from what the company would save in reduced electricity bills, safety equipment costs, and workers’ wages.

Auto-body welding was another area of heavy industry that was automated with robot arms at a very early stage. Welding exposes a human welder to heat, high-current electricity, ultraviolet radiation, and fragments of hot metal showering off the electrode. Furthermore, it is very difficult to make all the welds in every auto body correctly, which can make the vehicle less sturdy and therefore not as safe in a crash. By contrast, an industrial robot can be programmed to make hundreds of welds one after another, all perfectly positioned, and never tire or become bored.


The earliest industrial robots tended to work in isolation. Each was designed for its specific task, with little thought of how it could fit into a larger system. In 1978, General Motors introduced the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA), an integrated system of conveyor belts, parts feeders, and small robots that could work in the same space as human employees. The PUMA could perform repetitive tasks, and human employees could do the tasks that required more complex judgment.

The development of the Microprocessormicroprocessor had major implications for industrial robotics. Putting the entire circuitry of a computer’s central processing unit on a single piece of silicon meant that robots no longer depended on a giant mainframe in a distant computer room but could be controlled locally. In addition, microprocessors could be produced in large numbers very cheaply. As a result of Moore’s Law (microprocessor circuitry doubles in complexity every eighteen months, and the price of an existing microprocessor drops by half during that same period), it became inexpensive to get older versions of popular microprocessors in large numbers to run basic industrial robots.

As a result, it became economically feasible to automate a range of repetitive assembling jobs that had not been sufficiently dangerous to make the savings in safety measures and equipment pay for the robots. Many of these tasks were generally boring enough that human workers had a tendency to let their attention wander while working, resulting in incorrectly assembled parts and lost money in the long term. Because robots were not subject to boredom, it was often easier to automate the process than to implement measures to keep human workers’ minds focused on the task.

Further Reading

  • Colestock, Harry. Industrial Robotics: Selection, Design, and Maintenance. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Practical information on robot designs commonly used in industry.
  • Espejo, Roman, ed. What Is the Impact of Automation? Detroit: Greenhaven, 2008. A collection of essays on automation that examine its effects on labor, particularly manufacturing jobs, and its application in farming, health care, and smart homes for the elderly.
  • Hodges, Bernard. Industrial Robots. Oxford, England: Newnes, 1992. Focuses on the development of the industrial robot, although it does note earlier automation efforts.
  • Ichiban, Daniel. Robots: From Scence Fiction to Technological Revolution. New York: Henry Abrams, 2005. General history of robotics from its literary roots to the factory floor.
  • Reid, T. R. The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution. New York: Random House, 2001. A basic history of the development of the microchip, critical to the development of modern robotics.

Automotive industry

Computer industry

Henry Ford

Ford Model T

Ford Motor Company

Samuel Gompers

American Industrial Revolution