Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Engineers Aim Factory Automation toward 21st Century Compatability

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Engineers Aim Factory Automation toward 21st Century Compatability

Article excerpt

GAITHERSBURG, Md. - Hundreds of engineers journeyed here earlier this month to a modest machine shop known as the Automated Manufacturing Research Facility, where the National Bureau of Standards tests ideas, machinery and information systems that experts expect to see widely deployed in American factories in the 21st century.

The federal agency's facility is regarded as more than a neutral test site for automation equipment and techniques that could be used throughout industry. It is already a major force in the development of widely accepted standards that will make it easier for information to pass between machinery made by different suppliers.

As things stand now, the manufacturing world is awash in conflicting methods of moving electronic information around factories. And there are conflicting ways of electronically expressing such basic information as the exact location of a robot's arm at a given moment.

``We want manufacturers to be able to put together different equipment and make products, the way consumers can put together stereo components from different suppliers and make music,'' said James S. Albus, chief of the robot systems division at the facility.

The visiting engineers come predominantly from such multinational companies as General Motors, IBM and Boeing, from equipment suppliers, from academia and from the Government itself. It is no accident that a machine shop has captured their attention or that more than 60 companies have donated $4.6 million worth of equipment to the NBS effort.

The need for better communication among machines has been most apparent to date on large assembly lines, the kind of production facility where automation has received the most investment and publicity. But manufacturing experts, the NBS and the Navy, which has funded half of the project, see the machine shop as the harder and ultimately more important challenge.

The Commerce Department estimates that almost 75 percent of this country's trade in manufactured goods comes from 90,000 or so smaller companies that make small batches of separate parts on which both the Defense Department and the multinationals depend. These companies have been the slowest to automate. They have the fewest resources for building sophisticated systems on their own and are most likely to modernize bit by bit with machinery from a wide variety of manufacturers.

Last week's open house provided the engineers with their first look at the Automated Manufacturing Research Facility since construction was completed. The facility now includes automated work stations covering several basic machining tasks, inspection, materials handling and, most important, an integrated design and control system.

The design and control system provides the electronic lifeblood to the laboratory. …

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