Automation is the process by which machines and computers are delegated tasks which they not only perform but also regulate, to varying degrees. In the process of automation, control of a process is turned over, in some measure, to the machine, such that the machine controls the pace of the work and the rate of the input, output, or both.
The term “ automation” covers an enormous swath of applications, devices, and machines, and it is difficult to explain automation comprehensively, because the field is constantly expanding and becoming more advanced and more complicated. But it is possible to give some basic examples of automation. For instance, an “automatic” car has an automated transmission. The transmission is responsible for performing several tasks on its own: deciding when to shift into a higher or lower gear, and then performing the shifting motion. Both of these things represent separate instances of automation.
Another example of automation is a bank’s phone system that gives customers information about their accounts when they call. This phone system, like the car’s automatic transmission, is made up of several different automated tasks. These include answering the phone call, prompting the customer for information, collecting the information, processing the information, and then giving the customer a response based on the inputs he or she has provided.
To fully understand automation, it is important to understand the distinction between automation and “mechanization.” Mechanization is the process by which humans are given tools that they can use to complete a task. While the task may be done most directly by the tool, and not the human, throughout the process the human remains totally in control of what is being done. A pair of hedge clippers, for instance, are an instance of mechanization. However, the human using the hedge clippers does not cede any control of the process to the hedge clippers; in that way, they fall short of meeting the requirements to be “automated.”