No more paper-pushing, when computers link up factories
John West seems oblivious to the factory surroundings. Automated machine tools - the most modern that the Milwaukee-based Kearney & Trecker Corporation has to display - whir away impressively. But Mr. West, president of CADLINC, Inc., is too busy talking about the future. Suddenly, he spots a drafting table over to the side.
''That's what has slowed down the factory,'' he says, pointing to a stack of blueprints on the table. If America's factories are going to modernize, West says they will have to get rid of blueprints and other paperwork that slow down the process.
The paperless ''factory of the future'' is still years away, analysts say. But machine-tool makers and computer companies are taking important steps in furthering factory automation.
Recently, CADLINC, a computer company based in Elk Grove, Ill., showed off its latest innovation in computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) at the Kearney & Trecker plant here. It is called the CIM Factory Manager, and it supplies an important link between the design computers in the office with the manufacturing computers on the shop floor.
CADLINC is not alone. Earlier the same week, Cincinnati-Milacron Inc. introduced its own system to link design and manufacturing computers. To develop its CINMILL system, the company teamed up with IBM.
''The system we are introducing today is a giant step toward total factory automation,'' says George Rehfeldt, Milacron's group vice-president of industrial specialty products. The initial thrust will be toward smaller machine-tool shops, 100 employees and less, which represent half the United States market for machine-tool controls, he adds.
The IBM-Milacron venture, which uses a hardened IBM Personal Computer suitable for the factory floor, is perhaps more significant, says Susan McGarry, industrial automation analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston high technology research firm. It will help give IBM credibility in industrial manufacturing, an area in which it has been overshadowed by Digital Equipment Corporation and other computer companies.
The CADLINC-Kearney & Trecker introduction ''is interesting, but we'll have to wait and see,'' she says.
The introduction of these systems signal that computer companies are beginning to approach computer-aided design from a manufacturer's perspective, analysts say. ''I don't think it's so much a technological breakthrough as much as an attitudinal breakthrough,'' analyst McGarry says. The potential market for computer hardware and software on the manufacturing end could equal that of computer-aided design, which currently is close to $2 billion, she adds.
What will computer linkups mean for the factory?
''It enables management to control all aspects of production from the point the product is designed to the point it is produced on the shop floor,'' says Harley Shaiken, a professor and technology analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Still, there are big hurdles to overcome in computer and machine technology before John West's goal of completely eliminating paper from the factory is achieved.
''The factory of the future is going to require a much better understanding of the processes involved,'' says George Hutchinson, business professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and manufacturing automation consultant. One important step: Develop methods to allow engineers and manufacturing technicians to explicitly test their designs and concepts before implementing them, he adds.