Those Darn Date Digits

Dec. 21, 2004
The Achilles heel of manufacturing?

Computer, what ails thee? With all the concern over the Year-2000 date-change malaise, youd have thought the computer industry would have it solved by now. I mean, you need to add two digits, right? Whats the big deal? Write me a line of code to fix it, and lets get on with business. The propeller-heads of an earlier generation thought they were doing somebody a big favor in saving some disk space by abbreviating the year with just the last two digits: 1965 would be 65; 1977 would be 77. Pretty cool, huh? Nothing too shortsighted about these folks. After all, they werent being asked to build the Pyramids, just some software to run the business for a few years. How long could this stuff last anyway? And remember, these are the same people who wrote the software that runs your company. They can plot the weather patterns six months out on a supercomputer. Just dont ask them if its raining. If it sounds as if Im cynical toward programmers, er, excuse me, "software developers," youre getting warm. Some major U.S. corporations are going to have to cough up an estimated $40 million--each--to heal their date-change affliction. Gartner Group, a research firm in Stamford, Conn., figured it would cost the world $600 billion to cure. If thats a software bug, it belongs center-screen battling saber jets in a 50s horror movie. Talk about bad news, just imagine this conversation between the CEO and the CIO, now playing in the executive offices of a major manufacturer near you: CEO: So theres a problem in our systems. What is it? CIO: The year 2000. When the calendar year rolls over to the new millennium, some of our systems--most of them, actually--wont work right. CEO: Wont work? Whys that? CIO: They werent designed to handle a four-digit year. CEO: So just add a couple of digits. Hey, while youre at it, go ahead and add three digits. That way, when we get to the year 10,000, well be ready. Gotta take the long view. CIO: Uh, Im afraid its not that easy. CEO: Why not? CIO: You see, the date references are in thousands of places in the code of just about every system we have. Its even in some of the hard-wired systems we have. Its going to take years to find and fix it all. CEO: Well, we only have two years left. Get going. What are the cost projections? CIO: Were not sure. One estimate has us spending anywhere from $10 million to $40 million. CEO: Youre kidding. For two lousy digits? Theres an army of consultants and software vendors that specialize in helping corporations minister to their millennium date-change woes. And while its a little late to be getting started, its never too late. The hidden problem for manufacturers, it seems, is that nobody has looked very closely at their particular area of vulnerability to the 2000 disease--factory-floor systems. All the attention has gone to the high-level business systems--manufacturing planning, accounting, human-resource management, distribution, etc. If not caught and corrected, these plant-floor dating problems will most likely be manifested in subtle, rather than immediately catastrophic ways. A job wont load. A screen will flash, "INVALID DATE." Or, an operator may receive the message, "DESTROY LOT 142, MATERIAL IS 99 YEARS OLD." Often operators and planners will have to override the errant systems to get the work out. But taken together, these date errors and failures will have the effect of hampering and slowing operations. "This could impact your flow of materials substantially," says a manufacturing manager at a $16 billion U.S. firm that has a major Year-2000 program under way. And trying to hunt down and fix each of the myriad pains in the manufacturing organism wont be easy. "The subtle problems are the worst," the manufacturing manager says. "Id rather have something blow up. At least you know where to look to fix it."

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