Think tank boosts productivity

EVERY month some 750 executives from a wide variety of US and foreign compaines seek out a former Chrysler Corporation warehouse on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.

What they come to see is the home of perhaps the most visible and comprehensive productivity improvement program in the US. Here within easy commuting distance of its corporate headquarters, Westinghouse Electric Corporation has assembled a team of some 250 experts on robotics, computers, engineering, and management.

The group has two basic objectives: to keep abreast of technology that could boost office or factory productivity at Westinghouse, and to help managers in the company's 276 locations install the new methods as rapidly and as painlessly as possible.

"We are trying to develop very practical and meaningful tools for our divisions," says Jack Fooks, deputy director of Westinghouse's Productivity and Quality Center.

At the center, Westinghouse managers can watch the latest computer, robotic, and production equipment at work. And new equipment and procedures can be tested before they are installed in an actual factory or office setting.

The Pittsburgh-based productivity experts have helped Westinghouse managers find ways to:

* Cut from one week to one day the time it takes to set up production of a complex elevator part. This was done by using one more flexible machine rather than three less versatile pieces of equipment. As a result of speedier production, inventory costs for the part during production are how one-tenth of what they had been.

* Reduce mistakes in new plant construction by using computer-based design equipment to place pipes and ventilation ducts. The first time the system was used, it found 2,000 errors in a facility designed by an unaided human.

* Teach a $3,000 Apple personal computer to take over control of a manufacturing process. The process previously was controlled by a sophisticated system.

The company's goal is to post "annual [productivity] gains in the 10-percent area." Mr. Fooks says. "That is what you have to do to stay alive."

The Westinghouse productivity team has been at work for about two years, although it only moved into its own building in early 1982. The center already has helped Westinghouse post a 4.5 percent growth in productivity during 1981, vs. a 1.4 percent gain for the nation as a whole.

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