Getting to Know the Different Types of Automation

At its core, an automation system includes a network of integrated sensors, controls and actuators that are designed and built to perform a function with little to no human intervention. Most automation systems are employed to either complete tasks such as pick and place, drilling, welding, coating, painting or packaging in a more efficient or safer manner or to monitor and control manufacturing process parameters by directing the operation of equipment such as valves, pumps and heaters to ensure consistency, accuracy and repeatability for better product quality and more efficient production. But did you know there are several methods of automating equipment? Here we will learn about the three types of automation – pneumatic, electric and hydraulic, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.

What are the Benefits of Automation?

Before getting to know the basic types of automation, it’s important to understand why automation is a growing trend in manufacturing. Automation of manufacturing tasks or processes improves efficiency and production rates in a number of ways. Automation can improve the speed of mass production by boosting assembly time and minimizing cycle times, reducing bottlenecks and allowing more output in the same amount of time when compared to doing the same tasks manually.

Quality and consistency in manufacturing operations can also be improved because automation will reduce human involvement and, thus, human error. By controlling and monitoring a process throughout all stages of production, automation can provide uniformity and repeatability and maintain expected quality standards. In addition, automation eliminates or reduces the need for manual checks of process parameters because industrial automation technologies automatically check and adjust process variables to the set values via closed-loop control systems, which also helps ensure quality and consistency in finished products.

Further, because automated machinery can be placed in hazardous or treacherous areas and processes, industrial automation can help improve safety of the facility and its personnel who no longer need to work in these dangerous environments. Replacing human operators with automation in operations that involve heavy lifting or repetitive motion tasks, such as pick and place, can also help avoid related workplace injuries, reducing worker’s comp claims and saving your business money.

What are the Three Types of Automation?

While automation provides benefits such as more efficient production, improved product quality and consistency and enhanced safety, it can be difficult to figure out which type of automation is the right one for your application. Below, we discuss the three main types of automation – pneumatic, electric and hydraulic – to help you better understand how each type functions, as well as the pros and cons of each.


Pneumatic automation employs pressurized air or gas to power mechanical motion. It is frequently used in industrial manufacturing to drive tools, machines and processes via a compressed air system. The benefits of pneumatic automation include simple designs and uncomplicated on/off control mechanisms, reliability and the ability to be used in environments in which electronic control could create a safety hazard, such as fire or explosion.

One of the biggest benefits of pneumatic automation is that it is less expensive than other automation technologies, both in initial cost and in ongoing maintenance expenses. Further, pneumatic automation is typically a cleaner technology than hydraulic in that it relies on air or gas versus hydraulic fluids to drive the equipment. However, because pneumatics operate via compressed air or gases, movement is not as instantaneous or precise as it may be with other automation technologies.


Electrical automation streamlines system controls so that the equipment it is controlling powers up and down according to preset commands that drive an electric motor. The motor operates by converting energy into torque to drive an actuator. Electric actuators then drive mechanical components, such as gears, to move the equipment. Sensor technologies detect when programmed setpoints are reached. These preprogrammed inputs are what directs the motor to activate the motion – for example: start, stop, acceleration rate, deceleration rate or hold – that is expected of the machine or equipment being controlled.

Electric automation offers excellent response times, precision control and high performance and is suitable for quick, light automation applications. However, electrically driven automation tends to be more complex and is often more expensive to purchase, install and integrate than other forms of automation.


Instead of air or electricity, hydraulic automation relies on fluid, such as hydraulic fluid, mineral or other oil or water, to lift, hold and move equipment. The greatest advantage of hydraulically powered automation is that it can move heavier loads with greater force than other automation systems. Because greater amounts of force can be applied in a controlled manner, hydraulically driven machines can generate large amounts of force that are repeatable, reliable and consistent. The ability to achieve greater forces means that hydraulics can be used to make smaller machines that are more capable of achieving higher forces than larger machines powered by pneumatic or electrical actuators.

While hydraulics can often be applied in hazardous areas where there is a risk of fire or explosion, it is not a good choice in industries such as food, pharmaceuticals, medical device manufacturing, electronics or other industries where product or process contamination is an issue due to the likelihood of leaking of fluids. Hydraulic leaks are also an environmental issue and can be costly to manage.

How Do I Decide Which Automation Types is Best for My Application?

Selection of an automation system will depend upon the working environment of the facility, as well as the expected outcome of the automation. You will need to consider whether you are seeking a technology that can be used in a hazardous environment and, therefore, cannot risk electrical sparks or whether you are producing products where contamination might be an issue so leaking fluids would be a concern. Other factors to consider are the permissible size of the system, the desired speed and the amount of force, precision and accuracy that are required to complete the desired tasks. For more information on selecting an appropriate automation technology, please contact a representative at JHFOSTER.