Let's translate this to an easy war example—the
pontoon bridge. The intelligence center of an army may scramble
any number of strategies and plans to offset their enemy. For
instance, they can decide to attack the left flank of their
opponents. For this purpose the army has to build a pontoon bridge
5 miles upstream, moving to the spot all the military engineers,
workers, material, machinery, tooling and the battalion which will
cross the bridge. However, it is very probable that the enemy has
forecasted our plans, throwing a preemptive artillery attack on
the spot. It would be highly risky for the battalion captain to
insist on the plan to build the bridge there. He now has to decide
how to move his troops quickly and flexibly to a position on the
river from which to build the bridge, cross it, and achieve the
initial objective of overcoming the enemy army.
At least three types of flexibility exist in a plant (see
• An adaptable organization.
• Synchronized manufacturing.
This word was coined in Japan to indicate the union of
mechanics and electronics, two technological spheres that
intersect in the development and quick introduction of new
technologies, based on microelectronics applied to robots,
flexible manufacturing systems or FMS, and office automation.
These new technologies have been welcomed for their many potential
benefits—for instance, workers are released from repetitive,
unhealthful, or dangerous jobs. The first "robots" in
human civilization were mechanical clocks and sewing machines.
Next—an historical coincidence—the first mechatronics
application was also to clocks and sewing machines (i.e., the
mechanical components of the clocks were replaced by electronic
devices to move the machinery).
Mankind has fantasized about robots capable of
imitating or even improving human beings' working abilities.
Literature is full of such characters as Pinocchio, Carlos
Lorenzini's 19th-century creation, Mary Shelley's promethean
Frankestein's monster, and lesser-known ones such as Maharal's
16th century Golem, to whom a poem was dedicated by Jorge Luis
Borges, a celebrated Latin American author. It is surprising to
note in that even four ,centuries ago, these authors had the
sensibility to predict the difficulties of such a substitution.
However, our dream is still valid, especially
in the industrial environment in which we keep the illusion of
letting a robot do almost any job. Three factors have to be
analyzed when we think about mechatronics:
1. The market situation, given the intense
competition to provide greater levels of quality and
2. The human factors, which are divided
into positive and negative, since a robot could offer a better
work environment, but also represents an alienation of the
3. Cost factors can also be divided into
positive and negative, since a robot can give us the chance to
produce at scale economy level, but at the risk of keeping it
working to return the investment, without necessarily
benefiting the plant's productivity
In any case, before investing in any form of
mechatronics, we should apply common sense. Maybe one of the best
lessons is the one that Professor Daniel E. Whitney ("Real
Robots Do Need Jigs," Harvard Business Review, May-June
1986) teaches to his students at their robotics class. He asks
them to design a robot that is capable of washing dishes. The
students begin to work on the design, quickly noting that they
require not one but two mechanisms, since one has to be able to
grab the dish, and the other will be doing the actual washing. But
what if dishes come very dirty or are narrow? Soon the students
acknowledge that such a design would be extremely expensive. It
would be great to have the opportunity to be in those classes,
when the professor surprises the pensive students, letting them
know that the market has perfect washing machines at $500 each.
If the use of FMS and robots is questionable in highly
industrialized societies like those in the United States and
Japan; for Latin Americans, it becomes a daydream. However,
without getting to the last robotics considerations (I am sure
that some day we will be there, too), their flexibility and
applicability in plants present demands that cannot be delayed,
especially now with open borders and treaties like the North
American Free Trade Agreement.
To be Continued
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