Magazine article Management Today

Limited Intelligence on the Shop Floor

Magazine article Management Today

Limited Intelligence on the Shop Floor

Article excerpt

The factory employee of the future could be an electronic creature with six intelligent legs each capable of operating independently. If one is removed, the remaining legs continue to function effectively, compensating for the one that is missing whether the giant insect is building cars, assembling aircraft engines or filling cans with baked beans.

The Hexapod, as it is known, has been developed by the cybernetics department at Reading University to demonstrate how a series of computer processors (located in the legs) can communicate with each other and tailor their own actions in response to the information received. Professor Kevin Warwick, the department's head, says: 'The advantage of such a technique in manufacturing production is that it is fairly cheap, very reliable, very simple to set up, and fault to lerant.' The Hexapod technology is already being used in the manufacture of printed circuit boards at Quad Europe's factory in Reading. However, most UK factories have nowhere near this level of computerisation. They are certainly spending money -- last year the manufacturing sector forked out some [pound]2.6 billion on computers, equivalent to 24% of the total IT market and second only to financial services. But the overall picture is still primitive.

Numerically controlled machines such as lathes and mills are in fairly wide use, says Paul Watts, research manager at Benchmark, a market research consultancy specialising in factory automation. But relatively few shop-floor machines collect information and send it back to managers. In an ideal situation, production-line machines would use computer technology to gather information about the processes they are involved in and transmit it back to managers in a simple, intelligible format -- perhaps with coloured graphics to highlight areas where production is falling behind schedule or where variations in loading are causing a machine to function inefficiently. Computer technology can also be used by machines to adapt themselves to the task in hand -- speeding up to handle particularly heavy workloads or shutting down to save energy during quiet times and re-starting when volumes reach a high enough level. Yet, despite the high levels of expenditure, few factories have reached such a level of sophistication in their use of IT.

'Among factories with more than 50 employees, it is still the case that only a minority have any form of shop-floor automation,' says Watts. His view is shared by Warwick: 'If you walked in to your average large manufacturing production company you would be hard put to find an awareness of any very new developments in engineering, let alone IT.' One problem, Warwick reckons, is that manufacturers are not hiring people who know about computers; another is the pressure for return on investment. 'If you invest in IT you'll still be in the picture in five years' time, but most manufacturers in the UK have much shorter timescales than that.'

These problems have been exacerbated by the unsuitability of many products developed by IT suppliers in the past. The classic offering is the Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) package which became widely available during the late 1980s. It was inflexible and ill-suited to many factory requirements. A survey carried out by Benchmark in 1993 among UK manufacturers found that overall satisfaction with MRP systems scored only a marginally favourable 3.6 out of 5. A significant minority of participants, 16%, gave worryingly low ratings of 1 or 2. 'Lots of early MRP systems were designed to match a stereotyped view of what a manufacturing operation is, whereas in practice factories have a wide variety of different requirements,' says Watts. Companies that wanted to computerise had either to change their procedures or adapt shrink-wrapped software to suit their needs -- often leading to huge overheads in software maintenance.

The bad experiences of manufacturers who adopted IT in the 1980s are still taking their toll, even among quite sophisticated users. …

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