What is Industrial Automation? Applications & Safety Practices

what is industrial automation guide

Industrial automation is transforming the way industries operate, significantly improving efficiency, safety, and productivity. By integrating advanced technology into various processes, companies can minimize human intervention, reduce errors, and enhance their operational capabilities. This article discusses what industrial automation entails, its applications, and the critical safety practices when dealing with advanced and automated systems.


What Is Industrial Automation?

To start, let’s look into what is industrial automation. Industrial automation involves the use of control systems, such as computers or robots, and information technologies for handling different processes and machinery in an industry to minimize human and manual input. Automation is extensively used in numerous sectors, including:

  • Manufacturing: Automation controls various manufacturing processes such as assembly, painting, welding, and packaging. Robotics and programmable logic controllers (PLC) are commonly used to automate these tasks.
  • Automotive: Automation plays a crucial role in automotive assembly lines, where it helps in the precise and efficient assembly of vehicles. This includes tasks like installing engines, positioning windscreens, and wiring electrical systems.
  • Food and Beverage: In this sector, automation ensures food safety and quality by managing processes like sorting, packaging, and labeling without human contact.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Automation supports the pharmaceutical industry by ensuring precision in drug formulation and packaging, which are critical for maintaining health safety standards.


4 Types of Industrial Automation

Industrial automation systems can be categorized into four main types, each suited to different levels of production complexity and control needs:

1. Fixed Automation

Also referred to as hard automation, this type of automation system is characterized by their rigid and unchangeable operation sequences, designed for mass production. These systems use specialized equipment to produce a high volume of products quickly. Fixed automation is commonly found in processes such as automotive assembly lines, bottling plants, and food canning facilities, where manufacturing of standardized products or continuous production lines are involved.

Key Features:

  • High Production Rates: Due to its specialized and optimized setup, fixed automation systems are capable of producing high volumes at a consistent pace.
  • Dedicated Equipment: These systems often involve custom-built machinery designed for a specific task, which cannot be easily changed or reconfigured.
  • High Initial Cost: Although costly to set up, fixed automation can reduce the per-unit cost of items due to economies of scale when used in high-volume production scenarios.

2. Programmable Automation

Programmable Automation is designed for the production of products in batches, allowing reconfiguration and reprogramming of the equipment for each new batch. It is more adaptable than fixed automation and is suited for smaller production runs of varying product types. This automated system is ideal for industries where products are made in batches, such as in the manufacture of specialized or customized products, and is used in job shops or manufacturing scenarios where the products change frequently, like in custom furniture manufacturing or bespoke metal fabrication.

Key Features:

  • Flexibility: Machines can be quickly reprogrammed with different instructions, allowing the production of different products in sequence.
  • Moderate Production Rates: While not as fast as fixed automation, programmable automation allows for a decent production rate with greater flexibility.
  • Changeover Time: Although it offers flexibility, the changeover between batches can introduce downtime and associated costs.

3. Flexible Automation

This type of automated system integrates the high production rates of fixed automation with the flexibility of programmable automation. It is controlled by computers and is capable of continuous adjustments in production details. Flexible automation is particularly useful in industries like electronics where product specifications can change rapidly.

Key Features:

  • High Adaptability: Can switch between tasks or products quickly with minimal intervention, thanks to advanced programming and robotics.
  • Moderate to High Production Rates: Offers production rates higher than programmable automation but may not reach the speeds of fixed automation systems.
  • Computer Integration: Utilizes computer numerical control (CNC) machines, robotic arms, and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software to enhance flexibility and efficiency.

4. Integrated Automation

Integrated Automation refers to a fully automated system where various components and processes are controlled and monitored centrally through advanced computer systems. It represents the pinnacle of automation technology, often integrating elements of IIoT, AI, and real-time data processing. This type of advanced automated system is typically used in high-tech manufacturing environments that require integration of production, supply chain, inventory management, and quality control, as well as industries with high precision, reliability, and regulatory requirements.

Key Features:

  • Full Process Integration: Combines multiple automation systems across different operations into a single cohesive unit.
  • High Efficiency and Consistency: By fully integrating processes, these systems maximize operational efficiency and maintain consistent product quality.
  • Advanced Data Utilization: Leverages big data analytics, machine learning, and AI to optimize operations and predict maintenance needs.


Common Automation Technology In Industrial Facilities

manufacturing facility utilizing industrial automation systems

Industrial automation technologies have evolved significantly, integrating sophisticated tools and approaches that enhance operational efficiency and innovation. Here’s an overview of the pivotal technologies commonly used in industrial settings:

Industry 4.0

Often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 represents the convergence of industrial operations with digital technologies. This concept focuses on creating 'smart factories' where machinery and equipment can improve processes through automation and self-optimization. The implications for industrial operations are profound, offering enhanced productivity, greater flexibility, and substantial cost savings through improved efficiency and less waste.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)

IIoT involves the extension of the Internet of Things (IoT) to industrial sectors. This technology integrates sensors and other devices with networked computers to gather and analyze data to drive smarter, real-time decision-making. IIoT enables predictive maintenance, improved safety, and increased automation capabilities by allowing systems to interconnect and communicate.


Robotics technology involves the use of robots for performing operations more efficiently and with greater precision than human workers. Robots are now fundamental in tasks that require high precision or are hazardous, reducing the risk of injury and increasing production rates.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI in industrial automation is used to mimic human decision-making processes and carry out tasks in an intelligent manner. AI systems can learn from data to improve their operations over time without human intervention. AI enhances the capabilities of industrial systems, enabling features like predictive maintenance, quality control, and demand forecasting.

Big Data

Big Data in industrial automation refers to the large volumes of data generated from industrial operations which are analyzed to uncover insights that lead to better decisions. With Big Data, industries can optimize their processes, predict failures, and enhance product quality by making data-driven decisions.

The Cloud

Cloud computing offers scalable computing resources, providing industries with the ability to store and analyze large amounts of data online without the need for physical hardware. Cloud technology facilitates greater collaboration, agility, and scalability in industrial operations, allowing businesses to adapt more quickly to market changes.


As industrial systems become more connected, cybersecurity becomes crucial to protect data and operations from cyber threats. Robust cybersecurity measures are essential to safeguard industrial automation systems, ensuring operational integrity and data privacy.

Advanced Materials and Additive Manufacturing

This includes the use of novel materials and 3D printing technologies in manufacturing. Additive manufacturing allows for the creation of complex, lightweight structures that were not previously feasible. These technologies lead to innovations in product design, customization, and time-to-market, dramatically altering traditional manufacturing processes.

Modeling, Simulation, Visualization, and Immersion

These technologies involve the use of digital replicas of physical systems (digital twins), simulations for process optimization, and immersive technologies like augmented and virtual reality. They enhance understanding and training, allowing for system testing and optimization in a virtual environment, which reduces development times and improves system performance and safety.


Advantages and Disadvantages of Industrial Automation

Adopting automated systems comes with a number of advantages and disadvantages that impact various aspects of industrial operations.

For starters, automation enhances efficiency by significantly speeding up production processes and minimizing downtime, leading to greater productivity. It also improves the quality of products by maintaining consistent standards throughout production. Another key advantage is enhanced safety; automation takes over dangerous tasks, reducing the risk of workplace accidents. Additionally, over time, automation can result in substantial cost savings through reduced labor costs and minimized waste.

However, automated systems also come with some drawbacks. The high initial cost of setting up automated systems can be a significant barrier, requiring a substantial upfront investment. Automation systems can also be complex to implement and maintain, posing technical challenges that require specialized skills. Moreover, these systems may exhibit reduced flexibility, struggling with tasks that require fine human judgment. Lastly, automation can impact employment, leading to job displacement in sectors where machines replace human labor, which can have broader socio-economic implications.


Standards and Regulations

Ensuring safety and efficiency in automated systems requires adherence to various standards and regulations. Here is an overview of some of the key standards and regulations relevant to industrial automated systems and operations.

ISO 10218 Set of standards provides guidelines for the safe design, installation, and operation of robots and robotic systems, ensuring that they are used without posing a risk to users
IEC 60204-1 Specifies general electrical safety requirements for industrial machines, aiming to protect against electric shock, fire, and mechanical hazards.
ANSI 10218 Provides safety requirements for industrial robots, focusing on the integration, maintenance, and proper use of robotic equipment.
OSHA 1910.212 Mandates the safeguarding of all types of machinery to protect operators and other employees from hazards such as nip points, rotating parts, flying chips, and sparks.
ISO 13849  Provides safety requirements and guidance on the principles for the design and integration of safety-related parts of control systems, including both software and hardware.


Hazards and Risks in Industrial Automation Systems

While industrial automation systems bring numerous benefits, they also introduce specific hazards and risks that must be carefully managed to ensure worker and workplace safety. Below is a list of potential risks associated with the use of these systems:

  • Mechanical Hazards - These include entanglement, crushing, cutting, or severing hazards typically associated with machine parts, tools, or other mechanical components.
  • Electrical Hazards - Automation often involves complex electrical systems which can pose risks such as electric shock, burns, or fire.
  • Programming and Software Errors - Faults in programming or software can lead to unexpected machine behavior which can be dangerous to operators or bystanders.
  • Human-Machine Interface (HMI) Issues - Poorly designed human-machine interfaces can lead to operator errors, which may cause accidents or disruptions in industrial processes.
  • Cybersecurity Threats - As industrial systems become more connected, they are increasingly vulnerable to cybersecurity threats that can lead to system disruptions or safety incidents.
  • Environmental Hazards - Automation systems can sometimes create environmental hazards such as leaks, spills, or emissions due to malfunctions or inefficiencies.
  • Overreliance on Automation - There's a risk that workers or companies may become overly reliant on automated systems, potentially overlooking the need for human oversight and intervention.


Industrial Automation Safety Measures and Best Practices

facility featuring automation technology

With the changes brought about by industrial automation and innovation, it is critical for organizations to improve and adopt safety measures and strategies that effectively target potential risks and hazards with automated systems. With that, here is a comprehensive guide on key safety measures and best practices that help protect employees in industrial automation settings.

Light Curtains and Area Scanners

Light curtains are photoelectric transmitters that create a 'curtain' of light beams across an area. If the beam is interrupted, it signals the machine to stop. Area scanners use lasers to detect presence and movement in three dimensions. These devices are commonly used around dangerous machinery or in areas where robot operation takes place to prevent unintended access. They are crucial for areas where human interaction with automated processes might occur, stopping machines immediately when a breach is detected.

Pressure-Sensitive Safety Mats

These mats are designed to detect weight or pressure. When stepped on, they send a signal that can halt machine operation. Safety mats are placed around hazardous areas, such as near presses or robotic cells, providing an additional layer of safety for personnel that might accidentally step into a dangerous zone.

Emergency Stops

Emergency stop buttons are a critical safety feature that allows any worker to shut down machinery immediately in case of danger. These should be accessible throughout the facility, particularly in locations where workers interact closely with machinery. They must be clearly marked and regularly tested to ensure functionality.

Robot Safety

Robotic operations introduce specific risks due to their power and range of motion. Ensuring robot safety involves implementing comprehensive safety protocols and physical barriers. Robots should be enclosed in cages with locked access doors, equipped with sensors that halt operation if a human enters the vicinity. Routine safety audits and staff training are also essential.

Dual-Check Safety (DCS)

Dual-check safety is a control system feature that uses redundant monitoring and control mechanisms to ensure safety. It requires two separate and independent confirmations before an action can proceed. DCS is particularly useful in applications where single errors could lead to serious accidents, such as in material handling or complex robotic movements. This system minimizes the risk of accidents due to control failures.

Safety in PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers)

PLCs can be programmed to include safety functions, ensuring that operations halt under hazardous conditions. Safety-integrated PLCs monitor and control automated processes, checking continuously for signs of faults or unsafe conditions. These PLCs are essential in environments where a failure could endanger lives, adjusting operations automatically in response to real-time data to prevent accidents.


Industrial Automation FAQs

What is the standard for safety in automation?

The standard for safety in industrial automation often includes international and national guidelines such as ISO 10218 for robot safety, IEC 60204-1 for safety of machinery electrical equipment, and ANSI/RIA R15.06 for industrial robots and robot systems.

What is the main goal of automation?

The main goal of automation is to increase efficiency, enhance productivity, reduce costs, and improve safety by minimizing human intervention in industrial processes.

Where is automation used?

Automation is used in various sectors including manufacturing, automotive, electronics, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage production, and more. It is applied in operations that require high precision, consistency, or repetitive processing.

How to learn industrial automation?

To learn industrial automation, one can start with courses in engineering, especially focusing on mechatronics, robotics, or industrial engineering. Many online platforms and universities offer specialized courses in PLC programming, robotics, and automation technology. Practical experience through internships or hands-on projects is also highly beneficial.

What is industrial automation software?

Industrial automation software helps to design, simulate, and control automated processes. It includes PLC programming tools, HMI (Human Machine Interface) software, SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems, and MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems), which are used to streamline and optimize manufacturing operations.

What are the industrial automation instruments?

Industrial automation instruments include sensors, actuators, controllers, and robots. Sensors measure physical quantities like temperature and pressure; actuators execute actions based on commands; controllers, such as PLCs, orchestrate the automation sequence; and robots perform complex assembly and handling tasks.

TRADESAFE is an established American-based and owned company trusted by thousands for industry safety supplies and equipment. We offer Lockout Tagout products, eye wash stations, workplace signs, and more; all precision-engineered to enhance and ensure workplace safety.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.