So, I've been talking about this idea with a couple friends that play CE, and I believe we've come up with a great way to offer some automation in the game without breaking immersion or balance.
The concept is simple: make a whip, give orders to Thralls, they follow these orders. The whip takes a few sticks, some leather and twine. Of course you need to have available Thralls so the concept is locked behind the wheel of pain research.
How does it work? Well, there are three types of basic behaviors that require little effort to implement. First, moving items. Take your whip, right click a thrall (cue whipping sound) , and he'll follow you around. Right-click a chest, and select "Source". Move to the furnace, right-click the furnace, select "destination". A window appears where you select an item (ideally filtered by what was in the source chest) to select which item to move and how much to keep in the target inventory. Click OK, and you're done. This thrall will now keep the furnace full of stone. Higher level Thralls would permit more than one item to be moved.
The second behavior is even simpler. Right – click a thrall assigned to a machine (say, the black smith or the tanner), select an item from the list of products available in that machine, and the number of items to keep in inventory. The thrall will now keep its station stocked with just enough items, assuming it is constantly fed with source materials, and shut off when it's done.
With these two behaviors, and enough slaves, you can now easily automate the production of materials, building blocks, and equipment, providing you are gathering resources.
The third behaviour is about movement and actions. Some Thralls like fighters and archers are made to fight, others can be made to gather. With the whip, you would be able to define one or more way points and actions at these way points (wait, watch, break, gather, deposit, attack, etc) and a time to do that action. So, an archer can patrol the wall and stop to survey the horizon for enemies. A gatherer can be made to go to a location and pick up rocks, iron, coal, fibers, wood, etc.
Bonus points if you give a flow command so fighters can protect gatherers while they're out in the wild.
Constructive criticism and more ideas welcomed!
(edit : this is aimed at the devs, but of course if a modder wants to make it possible, me love you long time!)