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.

04/12/2011


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



The Engineers' Choice Awards highlight some of the best new control, instrumentation and automation products as chosen by...
The System Integrator Giants program lists the top 100 system integrators among companies listed in CFE Media's Global System Integrator Database.
Each year, a panel of Control Engineering and Plant Engineering editors and industry expert judges select the System Integrator of the Year Award winners in three categories.
This eGuide illustrates solutions, applications and benefits of machine vision systems.
Learn how to increase device reliability in harsh environments and decrease unplanned system downtime.
This eGuide contains a series of articles and videos that considers theoretical and practical; immediate needs and a look into the future.
Robotic integration and cloud connections; SCADA and cybersecurity; Motor efficiency standards; Open- and closed-loop control; Augmented reality
Controller programming; Safety networks; Enclosure design; Power quality; Safety integrity levels; Increasing process efficiency
Additive manufacturing benefits; HMI and sensor tips; System integrator advice; Innovations from the industry
Featured articles highlight technologies that enable the Industrial Internet of Things, IIoT-related products and strategies to get data more easily to the user.
This article collection contains several articles on how automation and controls are helping human-machine interface (HMI) hardware and software advance.
This digital report will explore several aspects of how IIoT will transform manufacturing in the coming years.

Find and connect with the most suitable service provider for your unique application. Start searching the Global System Integrator Database Now!

Cloud, mobility, and remote operations; SCADA and contextual mobility; Custom UPS empowering a secure pipeline
Infrastructure for natural gas expansion; Artificial lift methods; Disruptive technology and fugitive gas emissions
Mobility as the means to offshore innovation; Preventing another Deepwater Horizon; ROVs as subsea robots; SCADA and the radio spectrum
Automation Engineer; Wood Group
System Integrator; Cross Integrated Systems Group
Jose S. Vasquez, Jr.
Fire & Life Safety Engineer; Technip USA Inc.
This course focuses on climate analysis, appropriateness of cooling system selection, and combining cooling systems.
This course will help identify and reveal electrical hazards and identify the solutions to implementing and maintaining a safe work environment.
This course explains how maintaining power and communication systems through emergency power-generation systems is critical.
click me