What is automation?

  • By Steven W. Pflantz

This is a question that all of us, as automation professionals, need to be able to answer—clearly and simply. Outside of our own ranks, the vast majority of people do not have a clear understanding of what automation is and why it is important.  Add the fact that we, as technical people by nature, aren’t always the strongest communicators and it’s apparent we need to work harder at explaining what we do and the importance of it.

Let’s face it, we all see the glazed look in people’s eyes when we try to describe our profession and particular career responsibilities.

ISA staff members have recognized the need for a video that explains and defines automation in simple, easy-to-understand terms. The video is targeted to those who are not familiar with what we do and don’t live in the technical realm.  It’s an awesome tool for us to use to convey what we do. Watch the video here:

I know that some of you, after watching it for the first time, will immediately come up with ways to make it better. I admit that I did. But view it from the perspective of a lay person. Think about a grandmother watching it. I must remind you that most of grandmothers don’t have a Ph.D. in astrophysics.  Try it out on your family members and those that aren’t technically oriented, and see how they respond.

I encourage you to refer to the video at every chance you get. Feature it at your section meetings, interactions with ISA student members, and at local career fairs and school science festivals and competitions.

The video shows us that we need to leave behind the techno-babble when we talk to those ‘outsiders.’ Several years ago, ISA’s Kim Belinsky did a marvelous job of coaching me to talk to the FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) kids as they came to our booth at a FIRST Championship in St. Louis. The advice was clear: Keep it simple and in terms young people can relate to. It wasn’t long before we were sending them off with a good understanding of what automation is, as opposed to that confused, glazed look in their eyes.

Of course, FIRST kids are ahead of the curve when it comes to technical savvy, but the lesson is the same. For me, I always go back to the roller coasters and amusement park rides I’ve helped design. And there’s the peanut M&M factory and the mystique that I know the secret of making said peanut M&Ms.

So in addition to pointing young people (as well as their parents) to this new video, we need to spend more time in crafting our personal talking points when it comes to explaining automation. For kids involved in FIRST, for example, I relate to their involvement with robots. It goes something like this:

Did you know that you’re already working with automation by building your robot? Your robot is a machine and you built and programmed it to do something. The same parts and controller you’ve used to make your machine are very similar to what we use in factories to make their machines operate. It’s the same thing, but on a larger scale, building one machine at a time. Automation is what tells the machines what to do and how to do it.

In a peanut M&M factory, automation ties the machines together, machines that mix up the chocolate, that put the chocolate on the peanuts, that coat the peanuts with a colored shell, that print the M&M logo on them, and pour them in bags that are then are packed in boxes that are then stacked on pallets to be loaded on trucks. From there, they’re delivered to a store for you to buy and eat them.

I also take them through how the Return from Atlantis ride at SeaWorld works with all the automation that controls the ride, makes the animated props and lights work on cue, and monitors you so that you are safe and secure all along the way.  Automation and automated systems connected together are what makes the ride come together as one fun, exciting and safe experience.

The key is to keep it simple, relatable and not too techy.  Give them the concept without all the gruesome details. By doing so, you can play an important part in attracting more young people to rewarding careers and determining a brighter future for the automation profession.