Industrial automation: Improve outcomes and get better data

Modern industrial automation empowers advanced manufacturers with better results, safer working conditions, and a steady data stream for making the best business decisions.

Factory interior mock-up showing boxes routing across conveyors.
Robotics and sensors on the factory floor collect real-time data at every step, image courtesy of Barry-Wehmiller Design Group, Inc.

What is industrial automation?

Industrial automation uses information technologies and control systems like robotics and sensors to carry out industrial tasks previously performed by human workers. Sectors such as automotive and electronics manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and food and beverage processing commonly use industrial automation to improve quality, productivity, and safety conditions.

Auto factory interior, showing car unibodies on the production line
Modern industrial automation relies on data to improve quality, productivity and safety

Using different types of industrial automation

With the introduction of a Model T assembly line in 1913, the Ford Motor Company introduced industrial automation to manufacturing. However, industrial automation became modern when General Motors incorporated the programmable logic controller (PLC) in 1968. PLCs can monitor and control multiple machines with programmed instructions, and GM pioneered its use in car manufacturing.


This early industrial automation focused on increasing productivity with 24-hour operation and lowering the costs of a human workforce. Today’s advanced industrial automation has added other high-level priorities to improve quality and make manufacturing as flexible and data-informed as possible. This progression of industrial automation’s capabilities can be seen in the ascending stages of automation types, from basic automation to the most advanced technologies of Industry 4.0 and beyond.


  • Fixed automation: Fixed automation systems work all day on a set workflow for high-volume production. Making production changes is expensive and takes considerable time. Fixed industrial automation is quite common in food service and large-scale manufacturing industries.
  • Programmable automation: Associated mostly with batch production, programmable automation offers electronic controls that can change specific machine configurations and operation sequences. However, it still takes significant time to make changes.
  • Flexible automation: Including the various classes of CNC machines, flexible automation can handle batch production but is also appropriate for on-demand production where the product varies. Flexible industrial automation offers more customization options due to its precise controls. Making changes is also fast, which lowers downtime.
  • Integrated automation: Integrated automation represents the most comprehensive and connected system for industrial automation. It refers to a network of integrated machines, production lines, and other computer-controlled equipment under the command of a single control system, creating a The system collects data at every step from Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) monitoring devices; data analysis in the cloud can make automated decisions on production, supply chain management, and workforce management. These monitoring devices are an accessible solution for updating and completing any of the above types of industrial automation capable of data-driven results.

Benefits of industrial automation

While industrial automation comes with a high initial investment, it can pay for itself over time, and confer several other benefits.

Elevated productivity

Industrial automation unlocks the potential to run a factory 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The automated systems’ real-time data analysis can reduce production bottlenecks and downtime with predictive maintenance and regulate inventory.


Quality control

Automated manufacturing offers a high degree of consistent repeatability and can automate quality validation to catch variations early, reducing waste and rework.


Worker safety

Industrial automation, such as robotics, can take over dangerous and dirty jobs from people, reducing injuries from repetitive stress and accidents while freeing employees for more complex tasks.


Valuable data at your service

Monitoring devices collect real-time data from every step of an industrial automation system in centralized cloud software. Analyzing that data can help streamline the supply chain, find new revenue streams, and make better-informed decisions.


Flexible reconfiguration

Robotics and other automated machines provide the flexibility to quickly reprogram changes in the assembly line.


Savings in the long run

The initial investment in industrial automation pays off over time because it can effectively run 24/7 with minimal human supervision. Also, the maintenance costs for modern manufacturing automation are relatively low.


Autodesk software for factories

Professional-grade product design and engineering tools for 3D mechanical design, simulation, visualization, and documentation.

Cloud-based 3D CAD / CAM / CAE / PCB software for product design.

Navisworks Manage, Navisworks Simulate software and the Navisworks Freedom 3D viewer for 5D analysis, design simulation, and project review.

Customers using industrial automation

Viessman heat pump attached to a home's exterior.


Smartening up green heat tech production

To serve the booming German heat pump market, Viessmann built a smart factory with a high degree of automation that increases production and improves logistics.

Image courtesy of Viessmann

Interior of Porsche's automated industrial factory.


Digital planning helps build a zero-impact factory

For its first fully electric sports car, Porsche used digital factory planning in Autodesk Navisworks to build a state-of-the-art, zero-impact facility, which leans on industrial automation such as driverless transport systems to maximize production flexibility.


Image courtesy of Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG

Prefab units under construction in a massive factory.


Design, manufacturing, and construction under one roof

BLOX employs industrialized construction—the application of offsite manufacturing automations—to build hospital components in its Alabama factory for onsite assembly.

Industrial automation resources

Read how the digital factory’s automated processes and connected data will define manufacturing’s future, offering a faster time to market, predictive maintenance, resource tracking, and operational efficiencies.


Learn about highly digitalized and connected smart factories, why their automated systems and decision-making are essential for modern manufacturing, and the software that can help you work smarter, not harder.


This detailed infographic explains why a successful smart factory transformation starts with convincing managers and executives that automating repetitive processes will reduce errors leading to injuries and waste, and optimize resource use and product quality.


The Smarter Shop video series imparts nuggets of wisdom on how micro-factory job shops can incorporate and benefit from industrial automation like machine monitoring, robotics, and connected digital workflows on a small scale.

Researchers are training machine learning robotics systems with CAD data to make assembly automation more flexible and adaptable to product changes.

An Autodesk survey of industrial machinery experts shows how the automated data exchange of cloud-connected software can bring system-wide efficiencies to their networks of suppliers and collaborators, among other insights.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ) on industrial automation

What is an example of industrial automation?

An example of industrial automation could be a self-driving vehicle built to shuttle products and materials around a warehouse or factory. The mining industry uses autonomous or semi-autonomous trucks, trains, drills, and other machinery to encourage safety and efficiency.


Large-scale industrial robots are commonly used for product assembly, welding, painting, and assembly line picking. For more customizable operations, CNC (computer numerical control) machines automate cutting, drilling, milling, and turning for manufacturing.


Another example is a process control system, which automates physical and chemical traits like temperature, flow rate, and pressure for processes in facilities such as power plants and refineries.

What types of industrial automation exist?

There are three types of automation: industrial, fixed, and flexible.


Industrial automation types have progressed from static assembly lines to flexible and intelligent integrated systems.


Fixed automation is a type of industrial automation used for very high-volume production. Making production changes to fixed automation is expensive and time-consuming. Programmable automation works best for batch production and offers electronic controls that can change certain operations with significant effort.


Flexible automation, such as CNC machines, is used for batch production and on-demand manufacturing, where the product varies. It has precise controls and can customize production with little downtime. Integrated automation is the most modern and advanced type, where a single control system monitors and manages an entire connected factory from IIoT devices and cloud data analysis.

Why is industrial automation used?

Advanced manufacturing faces a skills gap, with qualified workers in short supply; industrial automation can accomplish more with fewer people while putting skilled employees to better use on more complex tasks.


Industrial automation can benefit firms, yield higher productivity, better quality control, safer working conditions, reconfigurability, lower operating costs, and a wealth of insights from a constant flow of harvested data.

Are there disadvantages to industrial automation?

There are disadvantages to industrial automation, including the high upfront cost and the time involved in setting it up.


Also, not every task or process can be automated or is a good candidate for automation. Machine automation is ideal for large-volume production requiring repetitive, consistent operations. Automation may not be the best choice when working with products of irregular or inconsistent shapes or with small, highly configurable production runs.


And while automation can make factory floors safer for people and create a need for skilled workers, it also replaces some jobs—another unavoidable disadvantage.