Service Automation Framework: Part II

Welcome to the second blog about Service Automation Framework. In the previous blog you read about ‘why service automation is important for your organization'. This blog is about Section 1 - Welcome to the world of Service Automation - H2: History of Automation.

2.1 INTRODUCTION

Before we present the initial Service Automation concepts and business drivers, we would like to start by placing Service Automation in its historical perspective. Understanding some fundamental developments in the evolution of automation helps to place the Service Automation Framework into a broader context. The historical highlights of automation provide some valuable insights into why the topic of Service Automation is important today and will become increasingly more relevant in the decade to come.

Automation is a topic that has caught the attention of many people from the early days of civilization right through until the intelligent robots that we build today. Ever since the ancient Egyptians, technology has helped mankind to be more productive by helping us to process more work with fewer resources. In its very essence, automation is a system (which could also be a mechanical device) that functions without continuous input from humans. In order to ensure that a system keeps functioning without manual interaction, automation requires some form of feedback loop. The existence of a feedback loop (also defined as a control loop) is the defining characteristic of automation:

Figure 2.1 The feedback loop is a defining characteristic of automation

Feedback loops ensure that the input of a process is adjusted based on the output of the same operation. By routing back information into the process, feedback systems achieve a self-regulating mechanism that keeps functioning without direct human intervention. The classic example of a feedback loop that we all know is the thermostat, which controls room temperatures. A thermostat references the measured room temperature against a predetermined value and subsequently adjusts its heating settings. Because the output influences the input, we label this a feedback loop (as depicted in figure 2.1).

The major benefit of automation is that it can reduce the necessary amount of labor to accomplish a task. Additionally, many automated systems greatly improve quality, accuracy, predictability and precision, because they take out the most unreliable factor of the process: humans. By implementing automated systems, we can realize results that we cannot achieve manually. As a result, almost every technology we presently use is based on some form of automation: electricity, cars, computers and even our water supply all function based on the fundamental concept of feedback loops. Automation has shaped the world as we know it today.

2.2 A BRIEF HISTORY OF AUTOMATION

Mechanical automation

Although most people consider the Industrial Revolution (mid 1800’s) as the starting point of major automation initiatives, the origin of automatic systems can be found in the early Greek and Arabic civilizations. The first documented ‘automated’ device is believed to be the ancient water clock of Ktesibios in Alexandria in ancient Egypt around 250 B.C.1 The water clock kept time by regulating the water level in a vessel and, therefore, the water fl ow from that vessel. This feedback loop regulated an accurate timekeeping that was used for centuries. Not until the pendulum clock was invented in the 17th century, did a more accurate time mechanism exist.

In 1620, the Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel designed the first feedback loop to operate a furnace, effectively designing the first version of the thermostat.2 Similar to its operation today, this first thermostat adjusted the temperature of a stove automatically to match the optimal use of fuel. It used an ingenious feedback loop that consisted of quicksilver and a spring that controlled the air supply (and hence the fire) of the stove. A second major Dutch invention during that time was used to tent the sails of windmills, constituting the first form of ‘mechanical’ automation. With this technique, millers could control the gap between the grain grinding stones that were driven by the rotating sails of the windmill. This design ultimately led to one of the most significant inventions in mechanical automation: the steam engine.

The invention of the steam engine by the Scottish inventor James Watt in 1781 marked the beginning of an era of industrialization – better known as the Industrial Revolution. It started a movement of mechanical automation, by which labor-intensive hand production was replaced by automated machines. Through the invention of the steam engine, it became possible for companies to start mass production, which became particularly dominant in the textile industry. The Industrial Revolution still marks a major turning point in history; the possibilities of mechanical automation impacted almost every aspect of daily life in some way. It sparked the rise of factories and started a movement towards the construction of large industrial cities, of which we can still see the results today.

Electrical automation

The second major breakthrough in automation came in the 1880s with the commercialization of electricity and direct current (DC), which is primarily used for lighting. Following Michael Faraday’s initial discovery of electromagnetic induction in 1831, many innovators started to explore the enormous potential of electricity. In only a short number of years, a great number of new technologies ‘saw the light’ such as the DC dynamo, the arc lamp and finally the incandescent light. Thomas A. Edison’s decision in 1877 to develop a practical incandescent lamp suitable for daily use has been an invention without which our world today would not look the same. Everywhere in the world, people switch millions of lights every single second.

The whole concept of electricity is based on the automated flow of electric particles (i.e. current) through electrical networks. Through electricity, a system can be created which functions automatically without the constant input of humans. Electricity can subsequently be ‘controlled’ by building electrical circuits, which enable feedback loops in electrical networks. These feedback loops, similar to a mechanic system, ensure a self-regulating mechanism that ‘powers’ a variety of devices. Computers, refrigerators and even the latest electrical cars all function without our continual input.

Electrical automation provided a new wave of technological advancement and new possibilities. With the use of electricity, tasks that previously had to be done mechanically (i.e. by a steam engine) could now be executed by electricity. A major benefit over mechanical automation is that electrical automation can be switched on and off, making it even easier to adjust systems based on required needs. We think it is fair to say that almost all modern technology today is built upon the concept of electrical automation.

Processing automation

Following the rapid developments in mechanization and electrical power, engineers at Bell Labs invented a small, yet powerful, semiconductor device in 1948: the transistor. The transistor was the outcome of an R&D project seeking to find an alternative for vacuum tubes that would require less electrical power. Paradoxically, the transistor ended up being one of the key components of processing chips, the heart of any computer. With this computer technology, it became possible to conduct computations automatically, which is processing automation. The power and speed, with which man could now replace manual computations, subsequently doubled every few years, making the transistor one of the most important inventions in automation.

Two of the early pioneers who explored the area of processing automation were IBM and Intel. IBM was the fi rst corporation to successfully develop and sell a computer system family, the revolutionary IBM System/360. These computer systems allowed commercial companies to effectively use the power of computers for the first time. Intel Corporation, on the other hand, has become famous for their development of the first (silicon) microprocessors in 1970. These chips significantly reduced the size and price of processing chips and empowered the development of personal computers. Together, these two companies would grow to be the global leaders of computer processing techniques.

The innovation in processing automation in the 1960s has really opened up the world of information technology and computerization. Chips and microprocessors nowadays control almost every ‘automated’ system we use. From the cellphone in your pocket to Google’s self-driving cars, all these innovations are only possible because people invented a system that could ‘think’ automatically.

Process automation

Closely related to the development of processing automation (with which we primarily mean the hardware components) came the design and development of software applications. Software enables the effective execution of predetermined algorithms, which we label process automation. In its essence, software is nothing more than a collection of code that is subsequently processed by a computer. It follows a step-by-step approach, similar to any other process. Where hardware enables the automatic processing of code, software enables the automated execution of processes. Through the design of sequential steps in computer code, it now became possible to model corporate processes. As a result, software nowadays supports almost every process in an organization (finance, HR, operations, etc.). Even if you only use standard applications such as MS Excel or MS Word, you probably utilize it to automate a certain process in your organization.

The first ideas about software and how it could automate processes was published by the famous computer scientist Alan Turing, who in 1935 described how systematically designed algorithms could execute processes more effectively in his famous essay on decision problems.5 Although his innovations were driven to maturity because of the Second World War, his ideas on algorithms and automation would prove to have a lasting impact. Based on Turing’s algorithm theories, Microsoft and Apple subsequently launched the first ‘consumer-friendly’ operating systems in the early 1980s, which made computers more accessible to the general public and upon which other companies could build their own software applications. It is therefore no surprise that these companies are still key players in the world of process automation today.

2.3 A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE FUTURE

Service Automation

The book you are reading right now deals with the topic of Service Automation, which we believe will constitute the next wave of development in automation. Service Automation is about automatically delivering an optimal ‘user experience’ for services. As we will further explore throughout the book, services are all about managing user expectations and ensuring these expectations are managed accordingly.

Figure 2.2 A short historical overview of the major waves in automation

Service Automation builds upon all previous ‘waves of automation,’ as depicted in figure 2.2. The benefits of service automation could not be realized without the techniques of electrical-, processing-, and process automation that we discussed in the previous sub-section. The major difference with the other waves is that Service Automation is a system that automatically optimizes the user experience of services – which is an intangible concept.

Service Automation Foundation
Jan-Willem Middelburg
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