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Manufacturing Flexibility 

 

PART IV. 

 

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 Figure 2):

• Mechatronics.

• An adaptable organization.

• Synchronized manufacturing.

Mechatronics

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 flexibility.

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 work force.

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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