In the Beginning…

Andrew Gordon
Mar 1 · 4 min read

In the mid-1800s, railroads were being built, and everything was done by hand. Men were employed, and they leveled the plains so that we would have the ability to transport ourselves from one end of the continent to the other. It was dangerous, labor-intensive work, but it was something we needed.

One individual that stood out during this time was a folk hero by the name of John Henry. A “steel-driving man”, John was strong, skilled, and could knock steel into the mountain better and faster than anyone else. This one man — the incredible John Henry — accomplished work that left onlookers utterly amazed.

In the industrial world, innovation is often a skill borne out of necessity. In this case, innovation was needed because the world needed more railroads, and more John Henry’s to build them. Without the technology to fashion cloning machines, they settled instead for the steam drill, automatizing the legendary strength of the man himself.

A John Henry statue stands above the Big Bend tunnel in Talcott, W.V., where many believe his competition against the machine originally took place. (WBUR, Creative Commons)

According to the rest of the folklore, a proud John Henry soon became determined to drive against the steam drill, ignoring his body’s limitations to prove that men like him would not become replaced by machines. He won against the drill, but not without paying for it with a sickness and, shortly after, his death. Inspiring but ultimately tragic, the folklore is an apt description of what springs to mind when the word “automation” appears.

So, what exactly is automation?

The technique, or making of, an apparatus, a process or a system operate without immediate human intervention.

The whole purpose of automation is to remove manual labor from the process, utilizing fewer people to risk fewer lives. Despite humankind’s ability to accomplish incredible feats, sometimes a little automation can really speed things along.

Automation: Pros vs. Cons

While John Henry was never convinced by automation, it has been historically common for societies to feel hesitant about automizing parts of what used to be manual labor. Moreover, in the corporate world, investing a significant amount of funds into technological upgrades that are not yet considered “necessary” was often too risky and time-consuming. With all the moving parts of new machinery, regular maintenance and learning curves had to be considered before a company could invest in any new technology.

Progress, however, is a two-sided coin on which disadvantages rest on one, and benefits on the other. The benefits of automation, as portrayed by the steam drill, quite simply meant that the same work could now be accomplished with fewer men and fewer injuries, not to mention lower costs for companies. When it comes to manual work, every John Henry has his limits, and it is not up to us to defy our biology.

The Ingersoll-Sergeant steam drill. (Wikimedia Commons)

Why would we want to remove the human touch?

  • To improve safety
  • To increase productivity
  • To improve and maintain quality
  • To reduce labor costs

The positive results of automation are very easily understood, even if they can be hard to swallow at times. Machines are quick, precise, and they offer an alternative to human labor while reducing the possibility for human error.

Many times, when we find ourselves in precarious production situations, the safety of our workers should remain the priority of all our projects. If we return to the example of the railroads, it is difficult to fathom how many people were killed and injured before the mainstream use of automated technologies.

This all sounds a bit dismal, doesn’t it? Don’t let automation rain on your parade — Automation is the rainbow after a chaotic industrial storm.

Automation offers many opportunities for growth as individuals, as companies and as a society. Rather than waiting for the future to arrive, we can begin adopting technologies of the future starting today. Since the start of the digital era, the meaning of human progress has taken numerous forms, but the most prevalent one is the need for technological adaptation. In simpler words, we need to establish firm attitudes that embrace change, and evolve with the times.

Automation in the Digital Era allows:

  • Opportunities
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Simultaneous completion of multiple tasks
  • Specialized jobs

Now more than ever, workers are emerging with various talents and complementary skills. Jobs have become very specialized, and we no longer live in a “one size fits all” society. The word “remote” has found new meanings in the Digital Era, and it can be quite daunting to figure out which button is the right one to press.

In the next article, we will be asking the question: Is this really making our lives simpler?


Originally published at https://automtd.co on March 1, 2019.

Andrew Gordon

Written by

All things Automation and Tracking. VP of BlackTrax Tracking at CAST Software. www.automtd.co

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