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Revolutionising automation: Recent developments driving rapid growth

Author : Eric Wendt and Eric Halvorson, Digi-Key Electronics

20 April 2022

Potential abounds in the automation and control space today: prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the market already was poised to grow immensely over the coming years. Now, as a result of the disruptions the pandemic caused to the global supply chain, automation is expected to grow even faster.

The variety of industries and applications that stand to benefit from automation is nearly limitless.

It’s become abundantly clear that automation solutions like robots are not going to replace workers or eliminate jobs in the ways that were predicted in the early days of automation. Instead, we are now seeing robots taking over the manual, mundane and/or repetitive tasks that may pose a safety risk to employees, or more simply, tasks that they don’t want to do. This is allowing those same employees to learn valuable new skills and move up the employment ladder.

Automation also helps companies keep up with supply and demand even when there may not be human employees available to fill positions, as happened during the pandemic. For example, Intel recently announced that it is building two new, fully modernised facilities in the U.S. that will utilise automation in order to produce chips at a much higher rate than would be possible if they solely relied on the 3,000 employees they plan to hire. 

Getting started with automation and control solutions is easier than ever before. Here’s a look at recent developments and trends that are revolutionising the industry. 


Today, the average person is much more comfortable using technology than ever before, due to the proliferation of smartphones, home automation systems, e-commerce shopping and other tech solutions that are ubiquitous throughout society. 

At the same time, automation and control solutions are becoming more user-friendly and accessible, which allows engineers who have never tackled an automation project to set up and code an automated device or teach a robot in a language and/or program they are comfortable using.

As a result of these trends, many industrial engineers today are very comfortable buying automation products online. It’s not uncommon for these engineers to undertake a small project in an industrial setting by teaching themselves through online research, reviewing resources from manufacturers, watching videos and more – oftentimes, they can take on small or medium-size projects without any outside support.

Quite often, companies adopt automation first for safety. Safety is of top importance and employee injuries are not only costly but can also impact employee confidence and launch expensive and time-consuming investigations with regulatory organisations. That's why many companies start their automation journeys with safety improvements and go from there.

A great example of a small safety project that may be doable on your own with some research and elbow grease is a safety light curtain – a device that shines invisible beams of light across an area and slows or stops a machine or process from happening when something disrupts the beam. These curtains are great for many applications – they’re fairly simple to set up, still allow access to the machine, and help keep people safe. 

Of course, there comes a time when doing it yourself just won’t cut it anymore. Large, complex automation projects usually require support from a team of experts called systems integrators.

Systems integrators

One of the biggest obstacles to larger-scale automation projects – beyond finding the right parts that are interoperable in a specific setting – is choosing the right things to automate. This is where it really becomes crucial to partner with an expert system integrator to help identify areas that can or should be automated to help your organisation save time and money in the long term. 

Systems integrators provide tremendous value to their customers. They often review production processes in a plant and identify the areas that could be improved with automation – and then they both design and build custom equipment, production lines, machines and more to help that process. They are also essential partners for setting up and testing these solutions, integrating them into existing processes, analysing how much time and money an organisation might save and much more. 

A great example of this is Digi-Key’s product distribution centre expansion (PDCe) project at its headquarters in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Digi-Key worked closely with KNAPP to design a new system from the ground up, work through bugs, identify new areas of opportunity and more. They will also be available for several years after the project is complete to help train employees and continue refining the system.

Automation within Digi-Key

Digi-Key first began utilising automation and control solutions in its own warehouse 30 years ago. As the company grew, leaders realised that automation was an essential element in scaling up its fulfilment operations – improving quality, increasing capacity and enhancing efficiency.

The first example of automation at Digi-Key was the use of a tote routing system, and since then, a myriad of additional automated solutions has been introduced.

There’s really not a segment of the automation market that isn’t poised for growth over the next five years. Digi-Key is looking forward to seeing what products leading automation suppliers bring to the market, as well implementing many of these innovations into its own operations to enable future scalability and success.

To learn more, watch Digi-Key’s “Revolutionizing Automation” video series here.

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