Accueil » 11-1 ( 1955) » Aspects techniques de l'automation

Aspects techniques de l'automation

Roger Chartier


Sous le nom d'automation, la phase présente de l'évolution technologique semble orienter l'humanité vers des modes graduellement « nouveaux » de vie et de travail. Les incidences socio-économiques de la technologie sont nombreuses et sérieuses. Le problème posé par le rythme même de l'évolution technologique revêt déjà un certain caractère d'urgence chez nos voisins du Sud. L'auteur se propose de préparer le terrain pour la discussion de ces grandes questions par une étude sans prétention de certains aspects techniques de l'automation: définition, types et description des développements récents.


Technical Aspects of Automation

New words are often a good way to prepare a hearty fight about issues "Automation", as a word, is eight years old. As a fact, some say it is just another phase of good old technological progress, and manage to trace its origins centuries away. Others maintain that "automation" is the second, or even the third "Industrial Revolution", that some of its characteristics are so dramatic as to leave man gasping for breath. On the one side, automation has been prepared by decades of research experimentation, and will not be in full swing before other decades; so, better let things take care of themselves, or even accelerate the process, since only good things for mankind can come out of technological "progress". On the other side, there is a solid regard for the marvels of technology, and, it seems, a genuine belief in the overall goodness of its long-run effects: more job opportunities, better products at lower prices for more people, and so on; but, as is quickly pointed out, "in the long run we are all dead", and no one has ever dared tell how "short" are the "short-run" effects, social, economic, psychological, and so on, of a given phase of the technological evolution.

But before the fight gains in heat and size, it may be useful to have a quick look at what the fight is about, namely, the technical aspects of "automation' as it stands today.


  1. "The use of mechanical and electronic devices, rather than human workers, to regulate and control the operation of machines." (C.I.O. publications)

  2. "The automatic handling of parts between progressive production process." (Management spokesmen)

  3. "The accomplishment of a work task by an integrated, power-driven mechanism entirely without the direct application of human energy, skill, intelligence, or control." (Professor H. W. Wilson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

  4. "A continuous and integrated operation of a production system using electronic equipment to perform routine functions and regulate and coordinate the flow and quality of production." (Professor W. S. Buckingham, Ir., Georgia Institute of Technology)

Automation thus covers the increasing use, in both factories and offices, of various types of labor-saving equipment having virtually continuous, and, in some instances, self-regulating operation.


According to Professors Shultz and Baldwin,1 three fundamental developments are the main ingredients of automation; the quotes in this section will refer to their text, unless otherwise mentioned.

  1. Integration: "The linking together of conventionally separate manufacturing operations into lines of continuous production through which the product moves 'untouched by human hands'." This form of automation has been applied in metal working, electrical and electronic apparatus making, meat packing, but most spectacularly in the automobile industry, where it is called "Detroit automation". Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, the makers of Nash, and so on, use it. As an illustration, the following excerpt2:

    McKinnon Industries, of St. Catharines, Ont., moved this year into the forefront of automation with a new assembly line to turn out V-8 engines for General Motors of Canada in Oshawa. All of the basic work on the engine blocks — more than eight hundred separate operations — is accomplished with only twenty-seven men. In a few months, when further automatic controls are installed, the number will be cut to twenty-one. These few workers are spread out along one thousand and twenty feet of massive and complex machinery... Much of the human work consists merely of replacing tool bits when the machines signal they are wearing out. Most of the inspection, too, is purely electronic.

  2. Feedback: "The use of 'feed-back' control devices or servomechanisms which allow individual operations to be performed without any necessity for human control. With feed-back, there is always some built-in automatic device for comparing the way in which work is actually being done with the way in which it is supposed to be done and then making automatically any adjustments in the work-process that may be necessary." The simplest illustration of feedback is the thermostat; we also find it in simple form in automatic washers, dryers, stoves. Without it, the atomic industry would be unthinkable, and so with some chemicals. With it, strictly continuous-flow industries like the petroleum industry have been able to increase productivity enormously during the last thirty years. "In Corning Glass plants scattered from England to Kentucky, there stand fourteen giant glass-blowing machines. While there are only fourteen of them, and each is operated by but a single worker, the machines, in effect, form an entire industry. From them each year flow 90% of the glass light bulbs used in the U.S., plus all the glass tubes used in the nation's radio and TV sets (picture tubes excepted)..."3

  3. Electronic computing: "The development of general and special purpose computing machines capable of recording and storing information (usually in the form of numbers) and of performing both simple and complex mathematical operations on such information." The first of these machines is hardly eight years old. Such computers can "think", make routine decisions in a uniform way, work out extremely complex problems and calculations in a matter of seconds. "The bigger computers can solve mathematical problems that are literally beyond human capacity. One such, in atomic physics, was handled recently by IBM. It, and others like it, involve 72,000,000 separate operations. A man working with pencil and paper might finish one in about 800 years... General Electric uses a giant Univac calculator to make up the weekly payroll for the 12,000 employees in its plant at Louisville, Ky. The brain does the entire job. It adds bonuses earned, makes income and medical-plan deductions, figures overtime — all the things a payroll clerk has to do to a pay cheque in mid-twentieth century. It distributes all totals among the cost accounts of the company's various departments. Then it writes out a cheque for everyone concerned, prints a payroll register, and reports ready for the next job. The whole complex process takes less than six hours... The Prudential Life Insurance Company has a computer that will bill policy holders for premiums, figure agents' commissions, calculate dividends, and work out all the statistics on which premium rates are based. Officials estimate that the brain will take over the work of two hundred human employees in one department alone."4

Where is all this leading mankind, what will be the impact of automation on our society and our economy, what are its natural brakes and what others "should" be added to control its growth, what will management, the unions, and government do about it, these, with dozens of others, are all valid questions. Good answers can be provided only on the basis of a precise knowledge of the technical aspects of automation as it now stands.

  • (1) GEORGE P. SHULTZ and GEORGE B. BALDWIN. Automation: A New Dimension to Old Problems. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1955, p. 3.

  • (2) NORMAN DEPOE. "Will a Machine Ever Take Your Job?", MacLean's Magazine, October 1, 1955, p. 62.

  • (3) Newsweek, Vol. XLVI, No. 24, December 12, 1955, pp. 80-82.

  • (4) NORMAN DEPOE, op. cit., p. 64.