E-Commentary -- Lights Out? No. Lights Dimmer? Yes.

Automation continues to help boost output while contributing to shrinking manufacturing employment.

Most manufacturers today are making a lot more goods with a lot fewer workers. One big reason is automation. Expect this to continue as technology and software find still more applications not only on the plant floor but in factory management and the corporate office as well. To be sure, the truly "lights-out" plant remains an elusive goal. Yet some companies are making significant strides toward at least turning the lights down. For proof, take a look at the numbers. Two years after the end of World War II, when America's factories were back to work full steam, churning out cars, refrigerators, toys and other products, the portion of the workforce toiling in manufacturing was 35%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. By last year, that figure had dwindled to 12%. What's more, manufacturing output is way up. Production levels have more than doubled over the past 30 years. And despite the recession, manufacturing in the U.S. is turning out half again as many goods as it did a decade ago. Still, while American productivity continues to sprint upward, manufacturing employment remains at a steady downhill lope. Existing plants continually find ways to reduce head count while new plants typically open with skeletal staffing. Driving this riches-and-rags tale, of course, is technology. Robotics, automatic welders, material handlers, plant-floor automation -- all these technologies, combined with more sophisticated processes for making things, have together contributed to a steady decrease in the need for armies of workers. Where a manufacturer a dozen years ago would have employed half a dozen production planners, today that same manufacturer gets by with one, or in some instances, none. Clearly, one of the leading industries when it comes to innovative use of automation to boost productivity is high tech. At Cypress Semiconductor, for instance, software package ActiveBatch from Advanced Systems Concepts is used to aggregate several automated production plans. "It sits on top and tells those machines what to do," says Dennis Bell, director of information systems operations at the San Jose, Calif.-based computer chip manufacturer. "It automates what an operator would do." In effect, ActiveBatch serves as a kind of load balancer for some 105 batch jobs that the company runs to create production plans for plants in Texas, Minnesota and the Philippines. Cypress makes both the raw wafers from which chips are made, as well as the chips themselves. As is the case with most manufactures today, Cypress must live with complexity in its operations. The company makes more than 500 different chips, with 10 different package types, for a total of about 5,000 product-package combinations.. "It takes 15 machines to do this work, and it was difficult to coordinate the results," Bell says. On first glance, you might be tempted to think that only a human could be smart enough to steer the middle ground between excess inventory and missed shipments that result from too much or too little of anything. You'd be wrong. Trying to figure this stuff out would send Einstein to the showers in a nanosecond. ActiveBatch manages all this, tracking each job, monitoring its status and handling exception conditions, and reporting the results of each using complex logic. Also, because ActiveBatch is Web-enabled, managers are able to check in with it and control it remotely. "That self-service aspect is important for us," Bell points out. "With this system, we don't require intervention from any IT people to run IT jobs anymore -- that's a big advantage for us." Doug Bartholomew is a former IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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