The `flexible factory' reshapes American industry
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Allen-Bradley Inc. used the technology to penetrate new markets. The company's Milwaukee factory makes parts for electric engines and has a big share of US sales. But Allen-Bradley also wanted to sell to customers - mostly overseas - who needed smaller electric motors. So it bought $15 million worth of flexible manufacturing equipment. Now the plant can switch from one size motor to the other in six seconds - and a whole new market has been opened up to the company.Skip to next paragraph
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These examples are among the most dramatic, of course. Many US manufacturers, especially small ``job shops,'' still use the archaic methods - slow, inflexible, and riddled with flaws - that sent companies looking overseas, where labor was cheap and efficient, to do their manufacturing work. The US has paid dearly in closed plants and lost jobs.
As the country's industrial base gives way to a service economy, many economists worry that America's standard of living is falling as well. But others believe that the recent trend toward services is setting the stage for revitalizing American manufacturing.
``I see manufacturing, with or without us, moving primarily to a service function within a decade,'' says Mr. Merrifield of the Commerce Department.
In the future, he and others say, a manufacturing plant will ``sell time'' on its line, and make hundreds of custom-made products for different companies in different industries. A company like Zenith could buy time at a manufacturing facility to make televisions. Later that day, after a taking a few seconds or minutes to reprogram the computer, that same manufacturing line could turn out microwave ovens for General Electric. This is what Frost plans to do within the next couple of years with component parts rather than end products.
``When you have an environment which is very flexible and you can introduce new products very quickly, what you can do is actually talk to your customer, find out what your customer needs, and build a product just for the customer's needs,'' says Ramchandran Jaikumar, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied flexible manufacturing in Japan and the US. ``You're ending up more as an engineering consulting firm, rather than a [company] that is manufacturing products.''
For the US to be competitive in the new world of manufacturing, it will need more than a few showcase examples. Computerization must filter down to the 100,000 or so small ``job shops'' that cut, polish, and treat components which then get shipped to, say, General Motors and are put into a new Chevrolet. They are the backbone of American manufacturing, supplying some 75 percent of all the parts used in cars, refrigerators, televisions, or any machine.
``If America is to maintain its industrial base - and its standard of living - then it will undoubtedly be the small companies that make it possible,'' says John Simpson, who heads the Center for Manufacturing Engineering at the National Bureau of Standards.
``Manufacturing is becoming a service industry, and service industries are best managed by smaller companies, not industrial giants.''
But thus far, small companies have dragged their feet. Many simply can't afford the new technology, which costs million of dollars.
Ken Gettelman, editor of Modern Machine Shop, figures that only about 1,000 have put in sophisticated ``computer numerically controlled'' (CNC) machines, though some 21,000 have at least some computerization.