If automation makes you think about robots, you aren’t alone. But, while smart robotics is a major part of the industry, that’s not all there is to automation anymore.

For example, how was your company’s most recent email campaign sent? It is unlikely that each email was sent one by one. Instead, the send was probably automated using an email service that leveraged a database of information to deliver specifically crafted emails to a designated target audience.

What about your most recent hire? Did you review resumes by searching for keywords on paper from file folders, marking each with a highlighter? The likelihood is that your company used an automated hiring and recruitment tool that allowed them to search keywords in a convenient toolbar.

When you scheduled your last meeting with a handful of coworkers, did you review each of their calendars individually and log their availability in a notebook? Or, did you send a Doodle?

This even extends to operations. Is your customer service team still the front line for all of your customers’ questions. Likely, no. It’s highly probable that your customer service team utilizes a chatbot that has some intelligence capabilities. This function allows them to be more agile, responding promptly and completely to customers with concerns that need to be directly addressed at all hours of the day and night.

These functions weren’t performed by humans or robots. Instead, they were executed by a business application of automation technology.

What is automation?

The traditional definition of automation is “the technique of making an apparatus, a process, or a system operate automatically.” According to the International Society of Automation, however, automation is “the creation and application of technology to monitor and control the production and delivery of products and services.” 

In short, it’s using mechanized systems to perform tasks that would otherwise be done by people. By cutting out the human operator, automation can help cut down on errors, add new efficiencies to processes, increase productivity, reduce labor, improve safety and lead to higher profits.

Today, automation is becoming increasingly intelligent and effective. This is helping it turn up in businesses in ways that are less than obvious.

Like in the example above, a chatbot answering a customer question rather than a person is one business application of automation technology. But it can be much more than that. Automation is also the intelligence that results in linking the right information to the right person or product. This is particularly important in manufacturing.

Emerson, an electrical multinational company based in Missouri, for example, offers a product called the PlantWeb digital ecosystem. The system improves performance by collecting and synthesizing data from equipment and processes, and then delivering it to the most appropriate human for intervention.

Similarly, consider Zebra Technologies Corp, which offers software and tracking services. It’s technology has applications that improve services across industries including retail, warehouse and distribution, healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, hospitality, energy and utilities, and the public sector. Recently, it introduced SmartSight, an intelligent automation solution that can spot errors on retail and warehouse shelves and prescribe solutions.

In the retail space, Amazon’s analysis of prior customer purchases and its suggestions of additional products that each customer might consider as they complete their online order. Certainly, a person isn’t behind the scenes drafting a “might like” list. Instead, it’s all automated, and it’s usually fairly accurate.

But that’s just the beginning. Automation technology is also enabling augmented intelligence, where artificial intelligence and machine learning are combined to deliver new cognitive systems that go beyond what humans could accomplish working on their own. According to PwC, these systems can be used to “augment human-driven processes such as data manipulation, exception management and continuous straight-through processing improvement unlocking the value across all areas of the business.” 

By layering together automation with these intelligent technologies, organizations are able to transform how they work, how they deliver services, and how they scale their businesses.

Why invest in automation?

Automation is making things work better all around us. It reduces costs, increases productivity, increases reliability, reduces bottlenecks, and increases overall performance. Most importantly, automation is becoming increasingly accessible to small businesses thanks to the flexibility and lower cost of cloud-based platforms and services.

As of 2018, the automation market was estimated to be worth as much as $160 billion, on track to grow nearly 12% per year through at least 2025. Much of this growth is happening in Asia, the world’s manufacturing center, which owned 32% of the total automation market as of 2018. According to the International Monetary Fund, there are roughly 1 million robots currently at work in Asia, accounting for 67% of global industrial robot usage.

Much of the growth in the automation market is expected to happen in 3D printing, where automated printers are already being used to produce machine parts, and nanomanufacturing, where automation is helping produce solar cells, batteries and other tiny manufactured parts.

Manufacturers of all sizes, for example, are increasingly using automation to evaluate the efficiency of their processes. Automation gathers data from designated equipment, compares the gathered information to a set of ideals, and then suggests actions to be taken to achieve desired results.

In HR settings, even the simple ability to autofill data rather than manually enter it both improves efficiency and reduces the opportunity for human error. When harnessed, it should be a “driver of growth and job creation, including in new occupations and industries never before imagined,” according to the Aspen Institute

How to invest in automation

Investing in automation technology doesn’t have to mean picking the next big company with the most advanced robotics. Automation-related ETFs exist and include the Robo Global Robotics & Automation ETF, which has over $2 billion in assets. These allow investors to have diverse holdings in automation advances.

After all, given the rapid growth of the automation sector, investing in one particular company can be risky. Finding ETFs and mutual funds that offer exposure to this fast-growing sector as a whole is a better gain to gain exposure to the technology as a whole as it continues to develop and evolve. A search on Magnifi suggests there are a number of different ways for investors to do this.

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