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.


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

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