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The `flexible factory' reshapes American industry

By Barbara BradleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 1987

Grand Rapids, Mich.

DON TRUSKOWSKI pushes some buttons and takes a step toward the 21st century. His ``time machine'' is a computerized lathe that cuts metal into axles, bearing rings, and other metal parts. The parts themselves may be unexciting. But they are the early fruits of the next industrial revolution - a revolution that will likely determine whether or not this country can compete in the world market. Mr. Truskowski, an engineer at a small manufacturing company called Frost Inc., is reprogramming the computer so that the lathe will cut a different sized cylinder from the one it is set up to cut now. It takes a few minutes.

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Before Frost got computers in 1984, such changes were manual and could take hours, or for big changeovers, days. In those days, Frost made parts for conveyer machines. Now, Truskowski says, the company makes ``round things.''

It's a subtle distinction, but one that kept Frost from going bankrupt. It allowed the company to sell to other industries, including the automotive and aerospace industry.

``Anything round, we'll machine it,'' Truskowski yells over the whir of the robots. ``We're getting into different trades so that if one goes down, we can keep the other markets going, and always hopefully keep everything happy around here.''

Frost is one of the first small manufacturers to invest millions of dollars in a ``flexible manufacturing system.'' The technology, in varying degrees of sophistication, allows the same production line to turn out different products, often within seconds of each other.

Bringing home the plants

The Japanese are ahead of the United States in exploiting the technology (story, Page 20). But, increasingly, large American companies are using flexible manufacturing as a tool to regain their competitive edge, win back markets, and penetrate new ones. It spells the revitalization of US industries long considered lost to foreign competition.

``We can make almost anything with flexible automated systems if we just get our act together,'' says D. Bruce Merrifield, US assistant secretary of commerce. ``The automated manufacture of textiles, of shoes, almost anything is feasible now, but it's going to take some effort.''

To date, the major advances have been in high-tech goods. And those have been impressive, if expensive.

For example, in the early 1980s, IBM watched Asian rivals walk away with part of its typewriter business. IBM was considering closing its Lexington, Ky., typewriter factory and getting out of the business or setting up shop overseas.

But in 1983 - in a move that other companies are increasingly parroting - IBM decided it could get a better cost advantage by building its products in the US using an automated facility. It spent more than $300 million on the Lexington plant, which now makes electric typewriters and printers for its personal computers.

Moreover, it makes the 12 different models on the same line, with a computer channeling the various parts to the correct areas for robots to assemble. (The same line could make toasters, videocassette recorders, and other products about the same size.)

The flexible system allowed IBM to introduce new models more quickly and regain market share - especially from the Japanese, who had 80 percent of the personal computer printer market just three years ago.