mechanization and automation

Mechanization and automation is the use of machines wholly or partly to replace human labor. The two words are often used synonymously, but it is of value to distinguish mechanization as requiring human aid, automation as self-controlling.


The most familiar automated device is the domestic thermostat. This is set to switch off the heating circuit if the room temperature exceeds a certain value, to switch in on if the temperature falls below a certain value. Once set, no further human attention is required: a machine is in full control of a machine.


The thermostat is a sensor; the information it detects is fed back to the production mechanism (the heater), which adjusts accordingly. All automated processes work on this principle. In fact, fully automated processes are still rare: most often the role of the sensing element will be taken over by a human being, who will check the accuracy of the machine and adjust it if necessary.


The most versatile devices we have are computers: very often, the complexity of their physical construction is more than matched by that of the network of subprograms which they contain. Data can be fed in automatically or by human operators and the computer can be programmed to respond in many ways: to present information; adjust and control other machines, or even to take decisions. Computerized automation plays a larger role in our lives than most of us realize: airline and theater agents often book seat reservations with a computer, not a staffed box office; food manufacture is often automatically controlled from raw materials to packaged product; atomic energy is controlled automatically where radiation prohibits the presence of humans, possible leaks or even explosions being forestalled by machine. In addition, man would not have reached the Moon had it not been for computerized automation.


Since mechanization and automation emerged in the "Second Industrial Revolution," they have been associated with all kinds of sociological problems and upheavals. And this is more than ever true today. Long-term benefits to the human race have to be balanced against short-term evils such as unemployment and its attendant human sufferings.