A Vision of the Future

Consider the following scenario:

Pat and Chris are manufacturing engineering managers at small, innovative companies producing precision electromechanical devices used in commercial and consumer products.

Both companies have had a long line of successful products, but competition has forced new, more aggressive designs which are much smaller in size while reaching improved price/performance levels. Prototype parts have been fabricated and a few units have been assembled by hand. This morning, Pat and Chris are each concerned about how they will produce their next new product on time, with the highest possible quality, and at the lowest possible cost.

Pat wants to get automated production up and running quickly, but the old lines are running at near-maximum capacity and can't be re-tooled for the new product. Much the same situation is true at Chris' company. After reviewing all the relevant issues, both managers conclude that a new assembly line will be needed---and needed quickly to make the product a success.

Monday, 8:00 am.

Pat and Pat's staff begin modeling the physical layout of the new assembly factory using workstations with high-speed access to the Internet. Lists of equipment module vendors are searched and on-line "catalogs'' are browsed.

At the other company, Chris calls a meeting to help formulate plans for their new factory.

1:00 pm.

During the morning, Pat's group has selected a number of modules which may be needed, causing complete sets of geometrical and functional attributes for these modules to be incorporated into the new factory's growing three-dimensional model. Modules are tested via the Internet by sending commands to the modules, and observing responses via real-time video and performance data generated at the vendor's location. They are all hungry and it's time for lunch.

10:30 pm.

The factory model has been completed with over fifty modules from twelve different vendors around the country, and the small amount of additional tooling required has been identified. It's really late, so Pat calls it quits for the day.

It's been a good day for Chris as well. A number of ideas have been generated and the whiteboard is covered with a rough diagram showing how the product could flow through the line.

Tuesday, 8:00 am.

Pat's group is off to a good start using the newly created model to simulate the step-by-step assembly process and product flow. Each person is simulating different components at his or her own office. They communicate with each other via shared simulation windows, and video and audio conferencing tools. Occasionally, a module does not perform as expected. While the rest of the group continues their work on simulating and integrating other modules, a member of Pat's group calls up a consultation session with the vendor's technical support department. The techical support staff, working via shared debugging/simulation windows and video and audio conferencing tools, quickly identifies and fixes the bug.

3:00 pm.

Working through lunch, Pat's team has by now selected each and every modular component that will be needed. Pat knew all these components from various vendors were available, up to date, and functional, since the operating modules themselves were being used in real time in the modeled and simulated factory. Earlier in the day, reservation requests for modules had been locked in over the Internet by clicking on each of the modules.

5:00 pm.

After a brief meeting to verify that all of the modeled components are working together smoothly, orders to lease are sent out over the Internet using a few mouse clicks.

Chris' team spent a highly productive day putting together a Gantt chart projecting that the new line could be operational in as little as three months, if there were no vendor delays.

Wednesday, 10:00 am.

Boxes of modules are beginning to arrive, shipped to Pat's company by air from a number of cities. Pat's team starts putting together the pieces of the factory, which will need to occupy less than 150 square feet of floor space.

4:00 pm.

Pat's factory is assembled and everyone is anxious to see what will happen when power is turned on. One module does not wake up, but it is replaced in five minutes by one of several spares. When power is turned on, the modules automatically start executing their initialization procedures, and by about 5:00 these processes have automatically generated a new factory model in the workstation! Since some changes were made in how the actual factory was set up, the new model is somewhat different than Monday's model. Some of Pat's team decide to start programming sections of the factory from workstations back in their offices.

Thursday, 8:00 am.

Working with the new factory model, graphical programming and debugging of the operations needed for each module is begun in an iterative process. Cooperative behavior between modules is programmed by similar means. By early afternoon, major sections are operating, and the small amount of custom tooling made earlier by rapid prototyping has been installed. During the setup and debugging phase, technical support staffs from different vendor companies are present across the Internet to help debug the system. They download testing codes and observe the behaviors during operation via real-time video and data generated at the factory floor. Pat's group co-ordinates the distributed debugging effort using shared workware.

Thursday, late afternoon.

Pat's new assembly line is functioning, producing about 50 units an hour. There are occasional problems, and a lot of optimizing and fine tuning remains to be done, but Pat is pleased with the results: Engineering is happy to get production units for reliability testing. Manufacturing is happy to see production of a "manufacturable'' product. And Marketing is happy to get early production units in the hands of customers. Pat is confident that the line can be ramped up to full capacity and reconfigured as needed during the lifetime of the new product. Pat knows that at ``end of life'' the factory can be easily broken apart, and the modules will be returned to their vendors for use by other companies to help manufacture other new products.

For Chris, it has also been a challenging and busy four days. The team now has a set of viewgraphs describing their new factory, a projected schedule, requests for quotes, and a list of vendors and systems integrators to contact.

In our little story, which is highly simplified for brevity, Pat's company and Chris' company were not competitors. Chris' company is intended to be a caricature of today's way of doing business, and Pat's company is our vision of what could be done in automated assembly by fully exploiting the combined potential of the National Information Infrastructure, intensive distributed real-time computing resources, and carefully conceived hardware/software modules as depicted in this scenario.

We conclude this line of discussion with a view from the perspective of the manufacturing equipment vendor:

Wednesday, 10:00 am.

Sam is the president of a small company that makes and leases modules for use in agile assembly systems. Sam is happy that Pat has selected six of their latest modules for use in a new factory, and is confident they will work exactly as advertised, since both electromechanical and software aspects were thoroughly checked out as part of Pat's model while these modules were sitting on Sam's shelf. Later, Sam will monitor Pat's new factory by observing its operation in a model in Sam's workstation which is running synchronously with Pat's factory. By seeing how each module is being used, Sam plans to make a number of improvements which can be incorporated in the next module product offering.