The Cons of Automation

by Michael Schwartz

You will usually hear me talking about all the great things that automation brings. And for the most part automation is good. But it is not without its drawbacks and so, with this article, I would like to highlight some of the downsides to automation. I hope, as automation evolves, we can find some balance between the good things that automation brings vs. the side effects of dependence.

I started thinking about the side effects of automation the other day when I was making a cup of coffee of at the dentist’s office. I was using one of those pod based coffee makers that have become ubiquitous. I didn’t understand 100% why they were so popular at first, until I began to see how convenient and easy they make everything—from coffee to hot chocolate—with no mess and no measurement during the process! We have automated the measurement process out of making something so simple as a cup of tea or coffee.

This got me to thinking about measurements and automation in general. As an automation engineer, am I doing harm to the measurement community as a whole? Will the technicians of the future forget how to make even the simplest of measurements? Will the work of metrology be compressed to the auto set features on a piece of test equipment?

Slide Rule
Slide Rule

I remember this was a very important issue for my grandmother, back when I purchased my first digital watch. She was so concerned kids would never learn to tell time. Same thing with my mom when the school said I had to have a calculator for my high school science classes. I know generations before me learned science using slide rules. But what skills have I never learned because I had a digital watch and a calculator?

If you think about it, there are a lot skills you learn reading a clock. You have to know AM & PM and how to convert those values to a 24 hour clock. It is a simple skill, but once mastered you can add 12 to any number. Then the little hand helps you master your times 5 tables, as well as fractions, because 15 minutes into a 60 minutes is a quarter hour. And if you think about it from a higher math level, you learned both base 12 and base 60, and so on… creating new neural pathways in your brain.

Now from a quality perspective, metrology & automation is how you are able to get the same hamburger at every McDonald’s location. But from an education and culinary perspective, many of their people can’t cook outside of their automated system.

So where is the line in the sand? How will we know when we have moved too far towards the automated site or quality? Where is that point of no return?

I would like to see more of a mixture of automation and training! I didn’t always think this way. But over the years I have learned when automation breaks, the system needs to have a few people who really know what is going on. The problem is those people grew up without digital watches, calculators and a computer program that did the work for them.

Looking at the Army’s ICE (Integrated Calibration Environment), I see huge value in their paradigm towards automation. Being the first branch of the US Military to embrace automation, they had a unique problem. Automation was new to everyone, so many things went wrong. Even though most of them were related to user errors, it was the same issue as if the automation didn’t function properly—work got backed up and the Army could not complete their mission.

So the US Army did something very unique. They created written calibration procedures then automated them to their manual calibration document. This allowed the technician in the field to either test the device manually or automated. But more important, it allowed a non-commissioned officer to say “do it manually so that you know how to do this test!”

Metrology as a whole can never be compressed into a pure production mentality. We need to build skills in our junior technicians so that they can become senior technicians and someday metrology engineers. We can’t rely 100% on automation! We need quality training programs that co-exist right alongside of our press-this-button-and-go automation.