Expansion of the private sector in developing countries has been an integral part of the U.S. foreign assistance program and an important vehicle for helping these countries help themselves. Because the private sector is responsible for about 75 percent of the gross national product in some Third World countries, any advances in manufacturing technologies appropriate for use in these countries are sought eagerly, particularly the latest microcomputer hardware and software.
In describing the current state of manufacturing technologies and postulating future developments, Dr. Barbara A. Burns, manager of the Systecon Division of Coopers & Lybrand, was quick to point out that the application of advanced manufacturing technologies in developing areas is not without its challenges and special requirements. For example, changes in the local infrastructure to use or benefit from the technology may be needed. Logistics in the form of roads and shipping modes, a good postal system, and adequate telephone and power networks may be a problem, as well as the training and education of workers and managers.
The promise of advanced manufacturing technology may lead, moreover, to disappointment if the citizens, government, and industry have unrealistic expectations. For example, the new system may not work as well as expected. Or if it does, it may not work for everyone. Some people will see their jobs improve, while others may lose theirs. And finally, the self-interests of the local government, the regional development authorities, the foreign government or funding agency, and the manufacturing company may clash.
According to Burns, technology is changing rapidly in all areas of manufacturing, and the appearance of increasingly sophisticated computer hardware and software is making much of this change possible. They in turn support many other advances, from the sensors that control process flow in chemical production to the capability to collect and analyze data in R&D laboratories. Their decreasing cost and increased ease of use have further strengthened their appeal to the manufacturing sectors in developed and developing countries alike.
Because the capabilities of computer chips are expanding at an astonishing rate, resulting in more power in smaller packages, and because the cost per unit of memory has been greatly reduced, smaller businesses are now able to develop their own in-house capabilities. Companies of all sizes can use computers under a wider range of conditions. For example, Burns explained, design has moved from the drawing board to computer terminals, and parts and processes can be tested before construction, particularly where maintenance or an adverse environment may be a problem. Machine tools are sprouting microprocessor controllers and sensors. Supervisors and analysts on the factory floor can use computers to monitor the production flow. The movement of material can be controlled by automatic identification tags, such as bar codes, that can be read into the computer system by sensors. Material, parts, and tools can then be automatically moved and stored during the production process.
Software is developing at an even faster rate than hardware. Personal computer software is both easy to use and flexible, "enabling new users to become proficient (or dangerous) in far less time than when the early languages such as Fortran and Cobol kept computers in the domain of experienced programmers." Moreover, the new query languages and operating systems available for mainframes and minicomputers offer much of the flexibility associated with personal computer packages.
Manufacturing management technology - the experience with and knowledge of manufacturing that is still in the worker's domain - also depends in part on computers. "Total quality control, just-in-time manufacturing, engineering design management, and logistics management are current manufacturing philosophies that can benefit from computer technology in their implementation," observed Burns. But she added that they depend even more on the training and capabilities of managers.
Manufacturing Technology and Developing Countries
Burns suggested to her audience that three modes for applying manufacturing technology can be utilized in developing countries. She labeled these modes decentralization, diffusion, and development.
Decentralization refers to the distribution of production facilities by industry to take advantage of either natural resources, availability of labor, or access to markets. Decentralized facilities are often no more than satellite plants used to produce components, or to package and distribute products for local markets. Such facilities usually do not manufacture the entire product. Building local manufacturing capabilities, leading to autonomy, is not the intention of decentralized operations. Any effects that the operation may have on local economic well-being are secondary to the expected return on the investment. Jobs are created locally, but there is little long-term development of technical capability and intellectual growth. This may reflect in part the need to protect intellectual property, management difficulties in stretching across cultures and distances, or the realities of available skills or perceptions of available skills.
Diffusion refers to what are usually government programs aimed at helping companies adopt and modify processes and techniques and produce products or services that meet local needs or can be used for export. Because the key objectives are usually basic learning and building manufacturing capabilities, with profits as a secondary consideration, the time frame of the program is longer and the range of benefits expected is wider.
The program itself may fund research, education, and training; provide computers or tools; or subsidize companies to set up production facilities. Moreover, it will identify local factors - such as education, social policies, or cultural attitudes - that influence effective use of the technology, and it will match the technology to the local market or labor conditions.
Finally, stated Burns, "there is probably no direct connection between the source of program funding and the 'owners' or 'generators' of the technology, unlike in decentralization where they are probably the same."
Development refers to the payoff of industry and government programs: developing areas reach the point where they can use their own technology and resources to develop new products or services, often for developed nations. For example, a number of Pacific rim companies are now offering engineering services at a quality and price that are attracting major U.S. companies. The development mode is more likely to occur in countries where the educational and business infrastructure is well developed, perhaps through earlier diffusion efforts.
Indigenous development is more likely to use the local skills and resources because those in charge are aware of what is available. Wide distribution of the economic gains, however, depends on the funding and ownership of the enterprise.
Dr. Howard Moraff, program director of automation and systems integration at the National Science Foundation, predicted at this symposium that by the year 2037 there will be more robots than people in the world. The competitiveness of the marketplace is driving many manufacturers to use the sophisticated automated machinery now available, including robots, on their production lines. As a result, the cost of the work force participating in the manufacturing process has been reduced to 10 percent of the cost of the product, and this percentage can be expected to edge toward zero in the future.
According to Moraff, the relatively cumbersome, unintelligent robot of today, adequate for the simple, highly repetitive tasks of mass production, will be replaced by sleeker, more dextrous robots capable of wider applications, including complex, low-volume manipulations and operations. The "intelligence" of these advanced robots will be embodied in a collection of sensing and computing microchips. 'Even the expensive mechanical components can be expected to yield to advances in design and materials'" said Moraff.
Research in robotics is currently addressing the dynamic control of robot mechanisms and systems, including adaptive and sensor-based control, and the design of more dextrous and versatile manipulator mechanisms. Automated machine vision and understanding of visual images for recognition of objects and guided control of manipulation is yet another research topic.
The introduction of robots into factory operations faces several problems: workers worried about losing their jobs resist the use of robots; managers often do not understand this advanced technology; robot hardware is expensive; and the design and programming of robot tasks and operations is difficult.
Moraff contended that the use of robots in routine jobs is an inevitable result of the need to compete in the marketplace. He also predicted that the current high cost of robot hardware will drop as the hardware improves and the demand for robots increases - just as it did for computers. The design and programming of robot operations are generally demanding and expensive, but powerful, easier to use programming languages, task planning, and control methods are being explored.
"Robotics research will soon therefore allow us to develop new generations of advanced robots that will vastly enhance our ability to automate most of the tasks and operations of manufacturing," concluded Moraff. "It will then be very difficult to compete in manufacturing without such extensive automation."
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