Yes, but…will it run in the dark?

First Michael Babb editorial in Control Engineering, originally published in the November 1987 issue, talked about automation's contribution to efficiency manufacturing. Babb passed away April 6, 2011.

04/11/2011


Michael Babb, Control Engineering, Control Engineering Europe editorNote: Below, this first Michael Babb editorial in Control Engineering, originally published in the November 1987 issue, talks about automation's contribution to efficiency manufacturing. [Michael Babb passed away April 6, 2011: Read more about Babb, see other articles he wrote, and leave a comment, reflection, or memory.]

Over the years, many of us have formed our own ideas about how an “automated” factory should operate and what it should look like. The roots of most of our automation concepts go back into the ‘50s and ‘60s, when people were talking about things like transistors, cybernetics, and “IBM machines.” Our ideas have changed a lot since then. After a tour of a new GE factory in Columbia, Tennessee, our ideas have changed some more.

A plant in rural Tennessee that makes refrigerator parts may seem to be an unlikely location to view anything new and astonishing. But you don’t have to be there for very long to realize that this is a long way from 1950s smokestack America.

The control systems were put together by GE Fanuc. The factory makes only one product, a rotary compressor, and it does that every six seconds. The compressors are packed into big trays and trucked off to Louisville, where another highly automated plant puts them into refrigerators.

The first thing tour guides like to show is a computer terminal. On a single CRT, the status of the entire 30,000-sq-ft plant—each machine and assembly cell—is displayed, in full color. The computer system monitors 1,000 quality points. It also gives instant feedback on all factory machinery, including the seven miles of material handling systems. If you ever see pictures of this plant, they’ll probably show the unusual, helical-shaped conveyors located between the work cells. The gravity-fed storage silos buffer variable production rates and allow time for machine maintenance without stopping the entire line. GE has, in effect, turned discrete parts manufacturing into a continuous process control operation.

Several days after the tour, a friend, after hearing a description, wondered out loud, “That all sounds nice, but…will it run in the dark?” In other words, has the automation scheme advanced to the point where plant operations can continue all by themselves, with the lights turned off, and nobody looking at it? After all, that’s what total automation is, isn’t it? Close the level-zero control loops, then close bigger loops around the little loops, then bigger ones around those, and so on, until humans are completely factored out of the picture?

In such pyramid-shaped factories, data are gathered at the plant floor, digested, and sent up to the next level of control. At that level, the information is further refined and again dispatched on its upward course to presumably higher levels of wisdom. Eventually it gets to where is needs to be, a decision is made, and back down it comes, all the way back down to the factory floor.

At Columbia, things don’t work that way at all. Factory personnel have all of the information and make all of the decisions themselves. “The most important part of an automated factory,” explained Duane Shull, GE Fanuc senior vp, “is the people. Members of the management mindset have a hard time understanding that. They think they should have all of the information, and make all the decisions themselves.”

Of course, these people in Columbia are not your everyday factory hands, but highly trained and specialized individuals. As you see a young woman in Adidas and blue jeans tapping away on a keyboard, you have to realize that she probably knows more about automated machinery than you know about your own automobile. And it was fun watching her. Why would anybody want to turn the lights off?

Michael Babb, November 1987, Control Engineering editor in chief



No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2015 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
Your leaks start here: Take a disciplined approach with your hydraulic system; U.S. presence at Hannover Messe a rousing success
Hannover Messe 2016: Taking hold of the future - Partner Country status spotlights U.S. manufacturing; Honoring manufacturing excellence: The 2015 Product of the Year Winners
Inside IIoT: How technology, strategy can improve your operation; Dry media or web scrubber?; Six steps to design a PM program
Getting to the bottom of subsea repairs: Older pipelines need more attention, and operators need a repair strategy; OTC preview; Offshore production difficult - and crucial
Digital oilfields: Integrated HMI/SCADA systems enable smarter data acquisition; Real-world impact of simulation; Electric actuator technology prospers in production fields
Special report: U.S. natural gas; LNG transport technologies evolve to meet market demand; Understanding new methane regulations; Predictive maintenance for gas pipeline compressors
Warehouse winter comfort: The HTHV solution; Cooling with natural gas; Plastics industry booming
Managing automation upgrades, retrofits; Making technical, business sense; Ensuring network cyber security
Designing generator systems; Using online commissioning tools; Selective coordination best practices

Annual Salary Survey

Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.

There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.

But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.

Read more: 2015 Salary Survey

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
This article collection contains several articles on the vital role that compressed air plays in manufacturing plants.
This article collection contains several articles on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and how it is transforming manufacturing.
This article collection contains several articles on strategic maintenance and understanding all the parts of your plant.
click me