Guide to Industrial Automation -- Article Index

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  1. Automation and Manufacturing
  2. Important Concepts
  3. Components and Hardware
  4. Machine Systems
  5. Process Systems and Automated Machinery
  6. Software
  7. Occupations and Trades
  8. Industrial and Factory Business Systems
  9. Machine and System Design
  10. Applications

This guide is meant to serve as an outline for automation and industrial machinery concepts and terminology. It is suitable as a guide for newcomers to the field of automation as well as a reference for the seasoned automation professional.

The guide emphasizes control systems, but many other subjects- including machine building, mechanical engineering and devices, manufacturing business systems, and job functions in an industrial environment-are also covered extensively.

I began my career in the U.S. Navy as an electronics instructor and engineering/installation technician. The military requires its members to follow detailed instructions and document work activities and procedures accurately-a requirement that equipped me with the tools and discipline necessary to pursue a career in engineering. I learned the fundamental elements of electronics and electricity from a practical, hands-on perspective-tracing signal flow through schematics and using specialized tools such as soldering irons and wire-wrap guns to install and repair components. I also learned to develop, follow, and present lesson plans in a military classroom.

During my service in the military, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel internationally and experience other cultures and methods of accomplishing things.

After eight years in the military, I started college as a 26-year-old freshman. My math and science background was not particularly strong, so I was forced to play catch-up to keep up with my student peers who came out of high schools and junior colleges with some calculus and physics experience. Fortunately my military background gave me the self-discipline to study these prerequisites independently, and I began to learn the core subjects of engineering. I attended a large state university with a highly regarded engineering department and numerous top-notch professors. Although all engineering students were required to complete mechanical and industrial engineering courses, my interest and concentration was in the controls field of electrical engineering. To supplement my controls classes, I also studied power and digital electronics, plasma, communications, drafting/CAD, thermodynamics, semiconductor theory, and various computer programming classes in addition to an assortment of liberal arts and general courses. This curriculum provided a well-rounded and complete engineering education intended to ready me for entry into the workforce.

After finishing college and obtaining a degree in electrical and computer engineering, I discovered that there was a gap in my education from a practical standpoint. Industrial automation is tricky.

The theoretical requirements are great, but the practical knowledge necessary is even greater. The traditional ways of teaching automation simply don't transfer the practical knowledge you obtain after years of experience. Sure, you can learn a lot of mathematical and scientific concepts that will give you an excellent theoretical understanding of the field, but they fail to provide the necessary practical knowledge that normally comes from years of trial and error. This guide is intended to fill some of these "experience gaps." My automation background has been primarily in machine building and systems integration. Before starting my own custom systems integration and machine-building company, I worked for two controls and electrical component distributers and learned the value of manufacturers' catalogs and training classes. Much of the information contained in this guide is gleaned from catalogs that provide specifications of equipment for systems. Prior to the emergence of the Internet as a widespread and accessible resource, most of the technical data for components had to be obtained from specification sheets and physical catalogs. Classes and seminars presented by manufacturers were-and still are-excellent resources for hands-on training using actual hardware.

After operating a small machine-building and systems integration company for 14 years, I went to work for a large custom machine builder. This provided me with insight about how major corporations and engineering firms bid out and procure large integrated turnkey production lines and systems and how teams of engineers work together on extremely complex systems to produce integrated production lines. The many valuable tools and templates I used in my position at Wright Industries were instrumental in my ability to design systems in a coordinated and organized way. I will always be grateful to Boeing and GE for the experiences and training I received during my tenure there, as well as the ability to play with large-scale and expensive "toys." While working within this much larger organization, I was often asked how things worked or what the best technique might be to accomplish a particular task. I also had questions myself on areas outside my expertise. As these important questions were answered, I began collecting information with the primary aim of starting a general guidebook for these often-asked questions in the field of automation. I also started a blog,, and began posting subjects of interest to the automation community. This allowed me to refine some of the subjects and begin organizing the content of this guide. It also allowed me to cross-link with several other automation bloggers and gain valuable contacts in the industry.

During this period I also obtained my Six Sigma Green Belt certification. My interest in lean manufacturing and the business aspect of the automation and manufacturing industries grew, and I began adding more business-related content to the guide. I left Wright Industries in 2011 and restarted my automation company with more of a focus on the education and consulting aspect of industrial automation rather than machine design and programming.

One of the major purposes of this guide is to serve as a single point resource for those involved in the design and use of automated machinery. I used many of the charts and tables in this guide as design aids when specifying systems during my automation career, and I hope they serve as useful quick-reference guides for readers as well. There are also many topics that provide general information on industry-related subjects that might also be of interest to readers who hope to expand their general knowledge of automation-related subjects.

The guide is laid out in an outline format for easy reference.

Section 1 provides a general overview of manufacturing and automation. Section 2 introduces many of the concepts used in automation, controls, machinery design, and documentation. Section 3 discusses many of the individual hardware components used in the automation industry. Section 4 links some of these components together and describes some of the machinery subsystems that help comprise an automated machine or line. Section 5 brings these subsystems together and exemplifies machinery used in some of the different areas of manufacturing. Section 6 covers some of the different kinds of software used in the programming, design, and documentation of industrial machinery and information systems as well as business enterprise software. Section 7 describes job functions in the automation and manufacturing industries, and Section 8 covers some of the business organization and concepts used in the industrial and manufacturing fields. Lean manufacturing and various business tools are also discussed there. Section 9 covers a hypothetical machine procurement, design, and implementation process, while Section 10 contains some examples of automation projects and systems I have been involved in during my career. There are also a number of handy tables and charts and an index in the back of the guide.

Mechanical engineers who want to know more about controls or business, electrical engineers and technicians who need more information on mechanical concepts and components, and factory management employees needing more background on technical subjects will find this guide helpful. Machine operators hoping to move into the maintenance field and maintenance technicians needing more information on engineering techniques will also find subjects of interest contained within these pages.

Because the subject matter is broad, covering both technical and business aspects of manufacturing and industrial automation, no particular subject is covered in great depth. There are thousands of excellent resources available in textbooks, catalogs, and online that go into much more detail on specific areas of the automation, business, and manufacturing fields. I would encourage readers to explore these subjects in greater detail and hope that you get as much enjoyment out of this fascinating field as I have.

This material has been developed with the assistance of many individuals to whom I wish to express my sincere appreciation. To Joe, who provided extensive editing, proofreading, and other book- and picture-related help throughout the entire process. To the technical reviewers who made suggestions and corrections in their areas of expertise: big thanks!

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