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What's the Difference Between Automation and Robotics?

Alex Owen-Hill
by Alex Owen-Hill on Jun 28, 2017 7:00:00 AM

Industrial automation, Robotic Process Automation, test automation… What do the terms all mean!? Are robotics and automation the same thing?

A lot of people wonder if automation is right for them. Business owners are asking "Should I invest in automation?" and "Should I invest in robotics?"

But, what's the difference between the two? Is automation the same thing as robotics?

Automation is a hot topic in many industries right now. It can refer to several things, not just robotics. This article breaks down the differences between the various terms.

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Do I Need Automation or Robotics?

First things first, if you are a business owner you are probably wondering whether automation or robotics is right for your business. The quick answer is: it really depends on your current business needs.

Consider these questions:

  • Are any tasks in your business currently done by human workers and are repetitive and boring?
  • Are any tasks in your business a bottleneck to productivity?
  • Are they physical tasks or virtual tasks?

If you can think of even one or two tasks which are repetitive or cause a bottleneck, they may be a good candidate for automation. If they are physical tasks, industrial automation or robotics could be the answer. If they are virtual tasks, a form of software automation might work.

What Are Automation and Robotics?

The basic difference between automation and robotics can be seen in their definitions:

  • Automation — Automation means using computer software, machines or other technology to carry out a task which would otherwise be done by a human worker. There are many types of automation, ranging from the fully mechanical to the fully virtual, and from the very simple to the mind-blowingly complex.
  • Robotics — Robotics is a branch of engineering which incorporates multiple disciplines to design, build, program and use robotic machines.

There are obviously crossovers between the two. Robots are used to automate some physical tasks, such as in manufacturing. However, many types of automation have nothing to do with physical robots. Also, many branches of robotics have nothing to do with automation.

Make sense?

Let's look more closely at the different terminologies.

What Is Automation?

A lot of industries are talking about automation at the moment. Terms like Business Process Automation, Robotic Process Automation, adaptive automation and test automation are all over the place.

There are two basic types of automation: software automation and industrial automation.

Software Automation

Most of the information on automation that you can find online is about software automation. This involves using software to carry out tasks which humans usually do when they are using computer programs.

For example, GUI test automation is a way to test computer programs. It involves recording the actions of a human while they are using a graphical user interface. These actions are then replayed to autonomously test the program after changes have been made to the underlying software.

Other types of software automation include:

  • Business Process Automation (BPA) — This is a high-level strategy to streamline business processes. It involves formalizing all processes within the business and then integrating them into automation software. Implementing BPA can involve dramatically restructuring the business.
  • Robotic Process Automation (RPA) — Despite its name, RPA has nothing at all to do with physical robots. It refers to "software robots" which are programmed to use computer programs in the same way as a human operator would. They don't necessarily complete tasks in the most efficient way, but they are easier to integrate into the existing business processes.
  • Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) — This is an extension of RPA which uses artificial intelligence to learn how humans perform tasks when using a computer program. This allows the "software robots" to perform more intelligently than with the static rules used in RPA.

The difference between BPA and RPA is quite subtle. To use an analogy from robotic manufacturing, BPA is a bit like ripping out your entire human-operated production line and replacing it with a fully autonomous factory. RPA is like adding a collaborative robot to one workstation within the production line.

Industrial Automation

When we talk about "automation and robotics", we are usually referring to industrial automation.

Industrial automation is all about controlling physical processes. It involves using physical machines and control systems to automate tasks within an industrial process. A fully autonomous factory is the extreme example.

There are many types of machine within industrial automation. For example, CNC machines are common in manufacturing.

Robots are only one type of machine.

What Is Robotics?

Let's start with the basics. Robots are programmable machines which are able to carry out a series of actions autonomously, or semi-autonomously. They interact with the physical world via sensors and actuators. Because they are reprogrammable, they are more flexible than single-function machines.

Robotics, therefore, refers to anything involving robots.

Within industrial automation, robots are used as a flexible way to automate a physical task or process. Collaborative robots are designed to carry out the task in the same way a human would. More traditional industrial robots tend to carry out the task more efficiently than a human would.

Robots That Are Not Automation

To make it a little more complex, some robots are "autonomous" (meaning that they operate without humans directly controlling them) but they are not used in automation. For example, a toy line-following robot can autonomously follow a line painted on the ground. However, it is not "automation" because it isn't performing a specific task. If instead the line-following robot were transporting medicines around a hospital, then it would be automation.

So… Do I Want Robotics or Automation?

When deciding whether to invest in automation for your business, consider the following:

  • Decide if you want to automate part of your business.
    • If the tasks or processes you want to automate are virtual, look into software automation.
    • If the tasks or processes you want to automate are physical, look into industrial automation.
  • Determine if your physical tasks or processes could be performed by a robot.
    • If so, look into robotics as a solution.
    • If not, look into other industrial automation options.

Do you have any queries about the differences between types of automation? Ask us in the comments below or join the discussion on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or the DoF professional robotics community.

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Alex Owen-Hill
Written by Alex Owen-Hill
Alex Owen-Hill is a freelance writer and public speaker who blogs about a large range of topics, including science, presentation skills at CreateClarifyArticulate.com, storytelling and (of course) robotics. He completed a PhD in Telerobotics from Universidad Politecnica de Madrid as part of the PURESAFE project, in collaboration with CERN. As a recovering academic, he maintains a firm foot in the robotics world by blogging about industrial robotics.
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