Computers won't soon displace people; after all, say experts, they're only inhuman

Relax, readers of Kurt Vonnegut. In his novel, "Player Piano," Mr. Vonnegut painted a savage picture of a post-automation America as a society divided into three parts: managers, engineers and professionals. Machines do all the work, and the vast majority of the people do nothing.

With the plummeting cost of computers, fears about automation appear on the upswing. Not only are blue-collar workers worried about losing jobs; increasing computer sophistication also is seen as a threat by many white-collar employees.

However, the proceedings of a seminar on computers in manufacturing, sponsored by the Data Processing Management Association, suggest that some of these fears are exaggerated.

The experience of experts in this field also casts doubt on the theory that computer technology can turn around declining US productivity, and make this country once again competitive with nations like Japan and West Germany.

Computers made their first impact on businesses in the financial departments. Computers rapidly took over accounting, paycheck printing, and billing.

"But business leaders quickly realized that this wasn't making them any money , wasn't increasing their productivity," explains computer consultant Mike G. DeRosa.

The result, beginning about 15 years ago, was interest in utilizing computers to automate the inventorying and materials procurement process. Inventories are typically a manufacturer's second greatest source of overhead expense. Parts or material shortages which stop production, even temporarily, are quite costly.

So computer manufacturers began developing the programming, or software, which would adapt computers to handle this process -- given the fancy name of Material Requirement Planning (MRP). These software packages are so complex that they typically require over a million man-hours to develop.

The potential benefits clearly are great. For an investment of somewhere between $1 million to $2 million, a company can reduce its inventory by as much as 40 percent, improve efficiency by 25-30 percent, make more of its deliveries on time, and substantially cut the time between orders and deliveries.

The Weiser Lock Company, which makes door knobs and deadbolts, has automated its factory successfully, says vice-president of operations Howard C. Schupe. Several years ago Weiser replaced its manual warehouse operation with an automated system, including computer-controlled conveyor belts and cranes. Payback, says Mr. Schupe, took less than 3 1/2 years.

But companies like Weiser appear to be a distinct minority.

"Of the tens of thousands of systems that are up, less than 5 percent do the productive job expected," estimates Gus Berger, a consultant specializing in taking over distressed manufacturers and turning them around by using MRP.

Other experts are less pessimistic, arguing that as many as 20 percent of the MRP systems perform as expected. But as many as 20 percent of the installations are total failures, they say.

Consultants like Mr. Berger put the blame for poor MRP performance on the management of the companies involved. For some time managers saw MRP as a panacea, they say. As a result, companies with problems were those most interested in installing these systems. Also, the larger the company, the greater the risk of failure, the experts say.

The greatest resistance to these systems comes not from the workers, but from middle management, explains Richard Bourke of Bourke and Associates.

Unfortunately for many of these businesses, computer systems cannot solve the problem of poor business practices, Mr. Berger explains. In fact, they can sometimes make them more acute.

Nevertheless, for companies that make the conversion successfully the benefits are considerable.

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