The use of PA tools in integrated systems-- e.g., FMS or CIM--is much more powerful than their use for a single task or process. Such integration not only magnifies the productivity and efficiency benefits of PA, but also tends to induce changes in all parts of the factory. Management strategies, product designs, and materials flow all change to best make use of such integrated systems.
Many industrialists have a vision of CIM that includes maximum use of PA tools and coordination between them, with few if any human workers. Others downplay CIM as a revolutionary change and emphasize that factories will adopt automation technologies as appropriate. It may not be appropriate (or economical) to remove all or most humans from many factories. In any case, the widespread use of CIM and virtually unmanned factories are unlikely to arise before the turn of the century.
Principal themes in the future development of PA technologies include increasing their versatility and power, enhancing their capability to operate without human intervention, and developing the ability of the tools to be integrated. Researchers and industry spokesmen report progress in virtually all the fundamental technical areas, although many of the currently identified problems in programmable automation are complex enough to keep researchers busy for many years to come. According to many experts, the 1990's may bring many major technical advances which could significantly expand the range of problems to which programmable automation can be applied.
The purpose of this chapter is to describe the technologies that together comprise "programmable automation," and to evaluate their usefulness for manufacturing. In addition, the chapter examines how the technologies are evolving and what can be expected for the capabilities and applications of these tools.
Programmable automation refers to a family of technologies that lie at the intersection of computer science and manufacturing engineering. "Programmable" means that they can be switched from one task to another with relative ease by changing the (usually) computer- ized instructions; "automation" implies that they perform a significant part of their functions without direct human intervention. The common element in these tools that makes them different from traditional manufacturing tools is their use of the computer to manipulate and store data, and the use of related microelectronics technology to allow communication of data to other machines in the factory.
There are three general categories of functions which these tools perform--they are used to help design products, to help manufacture (both fabricate and assemble) products on the factory floor, and to assist in management of many factory operations. Table 5 outlines the principal technologies included in these categories, each of which will be described in the next section.