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A vision for shared manufacturing.


To help small companies compete globally, experts envision a nationwide network of shared manufacturing facilities that would lease state-of-the-art equipment for training, proto-type development, and limited production runs.

When the electronic information age was just being, computer manufacturers faced a dilemma. While many large corporations eagerly embraced the new technology, smaller companies were unconvinced that the substantial investments they'd have to make would produce big payoffs.

A solution arrived in the form of computer timesharing: large firms began to lease time on their powerful mainframes to smaller manufacturing and service companies. Many timeshare providers also trained their small-company clients on the new machines, helping to develop a knowledgeable constituency for information processing. Within a few years, the smaller companies had learned through hands-on experience what computers could do for them, and they began to computerize rapidly and enthusiastically.

An analogous situation is being faced today by vendors of advanced manufacturing systems. Large corporations are embracing flexible computer-integrated manufacturing (FCIM) and other automation technologies, in the belief that advanced manufacturing technology offers U.S. industry its last best hope of recapturing the lead in worldwide markets and competing globally. But small and medium-sized firms lag far behind. For example, one recent survey of machine tool manufacturers found that only about 10 percent were using any computer numerically controlled (CNC) applications.

However, if small firms do begin to embrace advanced manufacturing technology in greater numbers, it will have a powerful effect on U.S. industry as a whole. The approximately 130,000 small manufacturing companies in the United States supply an estimated 70 percent of the component parts used by large manufacturers.

In addition, both the Department of Defense and major defense contractors rely heavily on subcontractors-many of which are smaller companies-to produce military systems and parts. Advanced manufacturing in the form of FCIM is seen as a way to help even the smallest suppliers make rapid shifts in capacity, provide a much wider range of products, and achieve far higher levels of quality and batch-to-batch consistency.

But while the long-term benefits of advanced manufacturing are undeniable, instituting it is expensive. And with the economy trending downwards, managers at small companies find it difficult to justify investing in expensive new equipment and systems.

Based on the model of computer timesharing, advocates both inside and outside government are promoting a concept designed to demonstrate the benefits of advanced manufacturing to small and midsize companies. They envision a nationwide network of shared manufacturing facilities, offering state-of-the-art equipment and staffed by experts willing and eager to help.

At such facilities, small-company managers and their staffs would get hands-on experience in using the latest manufacturing systems. In many facilities, they would also be allowed to lease equipment time and take advantage of expert assistance, permitting them to experiment with new products, designs, and materials as well as make limited production runs. As they learn to appreciate the contributions advanced manufacturing can make, many small firms would undoubtedly choose to purchase their own equipment.

This vision is already being realized on a limited basis. "A handful of facilities are now up and running, and a number of others are well into the planning stage," said Deborah L. Wince-Smith, assistant secretary for technology policy at the U.S. Department of Commerce and a leading advocate of shared manufacturing.

Wince-Smith, 40, is an archaeologist by training and a veteran government official. In her previous positions as program manager at the National Science Foundation and assistant director for international affairs and global competitiveness at the White House Office of Science and Technology, she became keenly aware of the need to foster the ability of small companies to compete globally. "Small companies provide the backbone of our industrial base," she said. "It's absolutely essential to help them get up to speed."

In an interview at her Washington office, Wince-Smith discussed how shared manufacturing facilities are beginning to take shape and what the future holds.

Ellen Brandt: How did the Department of Commerce become involved with shared manufacturing?

Deborah Wince-Smith: The concept evolved about five years ago from discussions among Commerce officials and their counterparts at the Department of Defense and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA is the agency responsible for responding to surge demands for equipment in national emergencies, military or otherwise. So they're acutely concerned about the sustained ability of small firms to produce quality goods on a flexible just-in-time delivery basis.

The idea of shared manufacturing centers was conceived as just one part of a comprehensive strategy to help smaller firms modernize, move into new domestic and international markets, and compete globally. Why is shared manufacturing an idea whose time has come?

Shared manufacturing facilities can help small business in two important ways. First, they can function as teaching factories, places where small-company employees can come to see how advanced manufacturing systems operate and to learn how to use such systems themselves, in an integrated factory-floor environment. As facilities build up their client bases and become self-supporting, we hope they'll have the wherewithal to upgrade an expand their equipment regularly, so users can have access to the latest, best, and most advanced systems. Which small-company employees will patronize the "teaching factory"plant managers, other engineers, hourly employees?

All of these, certainly. But it's even more essential that small-company owners and top managers take Four centers are already operating, 16 more are in the planning stage, and there could be as many as 200 shared manufacturing centers within the decade. advantage of the facilities. Flexible manufacturing is not simply a production tool, it's a management tool that enables small firms to alter and expand their product lines rapidly and efficiently and to deliver higher-quality goods on a just-in-time basis. Plant managers and production line foremen can be wildly enthusiastic about FCIM and other techniques, but these technologies will never be embraced by small business-the necessary investments will not be made-unless CEOS, chief financial officers, and marketing managers are also convinced. Who will serve as "faculty" for these teaching factories?

When shared manufacturing centers are connected to educational institutions, it's obvious that professors and instructors from engineering, computer science, and business departments, can play a major role. Other center staff members will come directly from industry. It's likely that some center alumni small-company employees previously trained and now expert on the system-will choose to return and help train others.

Training is only part of the picture, however. We contemplate that most, if not all, shared manufacturing centers will also serve as viable short-run production facilities. Clients will be able to lease time on individual machines or networks of machines, either to experiment with new designs and materials or to carry out limited production runs of their existing products or completely new ones.

The main advantage of flexible manufacturing is that it allows you to alter design and production parameters rapidly and efficiently, without major retooling costs. There's no better way to make that concept hit home than allowing small companies to produce their own products using these systems. One production run, you might say, is worth a thousand words. What kinds of products will be produced by shared manufacturing facilities?

None of the centers is likely to be mammoth, so there will be some size restrictions. You won't see anyone producing aircraft fuselages. But we expect to see an almost unlimited range of products manufactured. Flexible manufacturing systems, for the most part, are geared not to specific kinds of products, but rather to specific materials. So far, centers have concentrated on systems geared to wire-cutting or metals applications, but systems are also available for wood products, textiles, plastics, injection molding, and batch-and-sort applications. How many facilities are actually up and running at present?

Four centers are already operating, two in Pennsylvania, one in Maryland, and one in West Virginia. Sixteen more in 14 different states are in the planning stage. By some estimates, there could be as many as 200 shared manufacturing centers operating within the decade. Because of their teaching factory aspect, will the majority of centers be attached to colleges or universities?

There will probably be at least three basic types of facilities. Some will indeed be tied to educational institutions. Others will be administered by nonprofit organizations, many of them having regional economic development as a major goal. Other shared facilities will be run as or by for-profit companies. Of course, some centers may be hybrid in nature, with aspects of two or more of the forenamed types.

Of the facilities already open, the first, the National Institute for Flexible Manufacturing (NIFM) in Meadville, Pa., is set up as a nonprofit group. It was funded almost exclusively by state and regional economic development authorities. Two centers, in Huntington, W.Va., and Hagerstown, Md., are connected with academic institutions.

What about the fourth facility?

That's the first example of a forprofit shared manufacturing center. It's located in Monroeville, Pa., in the Pittsburgh area, and is called the Micro-Teaching Factory. The facility is run by a company that is also a wholesale vendor and after-sale service provider for advanced manufacturing systems from a wide range of manufacturers. So far, this facility is being used primarily for training rather than timesharing. But the company has high hopes; it is already planning to open a second center in Cleveland and perhaps several more.

It's interesting that a systems wholesaler has chosen to open a facility. Are the manufacturers themselves also becoming involved?

Most definitely. Manufacturers of advanced systems are beginning to realize that successful shared manufacturing centers can offer superb showcases for their equipment and can help them make sales up the road. The facilities linked to educational institutions, especially, have already benefited from substantial donations of equipment and software, plus technical help from the manufacturers' staff people.

A good example is the Huntington facility, which is called the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing Systems. This center, which is part of Marshall University, has gotten donations of equipment and/or help from over 70 companies, which it calls its industrial partners. Foremost among them are IBM, Modcomp, and Numeridex.

Have military agencies become involved with any centers?

One of the most interesting facilities in development is the DemMaTech Machining Center at the University of Missouri at Rolla. The university is located in a real hotbed of small and midsize machine shops. There are over 640 such companies in Missouri, and many of them are either direct contractors to the Military or subcontractors for major defense suppliers. That is the proposed constituency the DemMaTech center hopes to serve.

Consequently, both the U.S. Army Aviation Command and the AVSCOM Depot Engineering Command of the Army have served as close advisors on this project and will have representatives on its board of directors. McDonnell Aircraft Co., whose subcontractors are likely to benefit from DemMaTech, has also been heavily involved, as have a number of other major defense contractors, among them General Motors, Caterpillar, Litton, and Cincinnati-Milacron.

Since all of the operating facilities have opened only recently, we realize there's not much history yet. But can you give us an example of how individual small companies have benefited from the centers?

NIFM, the Meadville facility has already been open over a year and can boast of some impressive success stories. For example, C&J Industries, with about 250 employees, might be a small company by national standards, but it's one of the largest manufacturers in Crawford County, Pa. This company's core business is making components for the automotive industry. C&J Industries expanded its manufacturing capability for the automotive industry and other markets by leasing machine time from NIFM.

Another local company, a tool and die maker called Chipsco, was awarded an important contract to make 800 units of a certain tool for General Motors. They had to fulfill this contract in three weeks, which seemed impossible with their inhouse capabilities. So they leased time on NIFM's shared manufacturing system and were able to meet the delivery schedule with time to spare. Now, with proof of how well it works, the company is seriously considering making the necessary quarter-million-dollar investment to purchase a system of its own.

How might mechanical engineers participate in shared manufacturing?

Many individual M.E.s are already actively involved. Three of the four centers currently operating are headed by degreed mechanical engineers and a number of other M.E.s are members of their staffs. Several university-based facilities will probably be formally linked to schools or departments of engineering. DemMaTech at the University of Missouri will be directly linked to the school of engineering, for example.

Certainly, many of a typical shared center's client companies will be headed and/or staffed by mechanical engineers. And numerous M.E.s are connected with FCIM suppliers. In short, we consider mechanical engineers a tremendously important potential support group for the concept. We hope and anticipate that many M.E.s will join the network of shared manufacturing champions. What do you mean by champions?

Slowly but surely, a nationwide network of advocates for shared manufacturing is forming- Among groups that have shown keen interest already are the National Center for Manufacturing Science, the National Tooling and Machining Association, the National Tool Builders Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Are you optimistic that a strong constituency for shared manufacturing will develop and that many more centers will be established?

We're extremely optimistic. As early facilities succeed, other educational institutions, nonprofits, and for-profit firms will be encouraged to plan and initiate projects of their own.

I'd like to stress that shared manufacturing is just one of the programs in which the Department of Commerce's ice for Technology Policy is involved. Among other initiatives, we are helping to forge strategic partnerships among industry, universities, and government; to transfer and commercialize federally funded research and development; to foster U.S. industry's access to foreign R&D; and to promote global standardization in areas important to business, such as telecommunications.

The underlying motivation behind all these efforts is our desire to see American businesses, both small and large, survive and prosper in an increasingly difficult and competitive world economy. Shared manufacturing facilities represent one promising means of achieving this worthwhile goal.

Maryland Center Makes Good

Located in the fertile Potomac River Valley of northwestern Maryland, Hagerstown is the center of a region that is both scenic and historic. Antietam, Gettysburg, and Harper's Ferry are all little more than a stone's throw away. The area, however, is hardly an industrial hotbed. Despite the presence of a few substantial companies, like Mack Trucks and Grove Worldwide Manufacturing, most businesses are small and many have antiquated facilities. "I've visited manufacturing companies whose equipment was 30 or even 50 years out of date," says Charles M. Ernst, the Annapolis-trained mechanical engineer who heads Hagerstown Junior College's new Advanced Technology Center (ATC), which includes an ambitiously conceived shared manufacturing facility.

A native of Washington County and former chairman of the college's engineering and mathematics division, Ernst hopes that the ATC will help shake up area industry, propelling local manufacturing into the 21st century.

The college, which has over 10,000 full-time and continuing education students and a staff of 500, was already planning to construct a tech center of some sort when Ernst attended a conference at a local Holiday Inn three years ago. The speaker was Department of Commerce official Ted Lettes, program director for shared manufacturing and one of the originators of the shared center concept. Ernst came away a convert and convinced his Hagerstown colleagues that including a flexible manufacturing component would make the ATC even more of a magnet for area businesses.

The 32,000-square-foot tech center, on the site of a former school gymnasium, was constructed and equipped with the help of $4.48 million in grants and donations. The state of Maryland gave $1 million in the form of a state tax amnesty. The largest grant, $1.4 million, came from the Washington County commissioners; about $775,000 came from the State Board of Community Colleges; 400,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency; over 240,000 from a Maryland Community Development Block Grant; and 660,000 in corporate and nonprofit gifts and contributions.

Dedicated last August, the ATC currently features 16 manufacturing and design laboratories offering specialized equipment, including labs focusing on computer-aided design and drafting, industrial controls, robotics, quality assurance, CAM, process control, and microprocessor applications.

The shared manufacturing facility itself takes up about 4000 square feet. Part of it is occupied by an applied miniload automatic storage and retrieval system (AS/RS). Other pieces of equipment are linked in an FCIM network. Among elements of the network currently installed are an automatic guided vehicle (AGV); two model IRB-3000 six-axis robots from Asea Brown Boveri; a CNC wire-cut electrostatic discharge machine from Charmilles Robofil; a CNC vertical machining center made by Sharnoa, with Tiger IV controls; a CNC slantbed turning center from Okuma/Howa, with Fanuc controls; and a coordinate measuring machine.

The facility's manufacturing director, David D. Muffley, an M.E. trained at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore), explained how a typical application might proceed: the AGV receives metal stock from the AS/RS robot and transports it to the CNC wire-cut electrostatic discharge machine. After the metal form is cut and burned, six-axis robots carry it in sequence to the CNC turning center, the CNC machining center, and back to the AGV. The form is then transported to and scanned by the coordinate measuring machine. If it meets specifications, the AGV returns it to the AS/RS for storage.

Ernst and Muffley noted that the flexible CIM center is in the start-up stage and there is still a lot to learn. However, several small companies in the area are already taking advantage of the facility. For example, Statton Furniture Co., a Hagerstown maker of custom antique-look furniture, which employs about 200 people, is using the facility. Recently, company president Phil Statton used the FCIM system to make several steel templates, used as router guides in the company's grinding machines.

The college is still devising time-share pricing for the facility. Based on the fee scales of other centers, it will probably charge $40 to $50 per hour of machine time. Ernst expects to have little difficulty attracting clients. "We've received enthusiastic inquiries from several dozen companies," he said. Perhaps the most unusual interested party is a manufacturer of pipe organs, which hopes to use the facility to cut holes in metal organ plates.

High on the wish list of additional equipment Ernst would like to add to the facility are a stereolithograhy system, assembly and welding robots, and an injection molding system. There are also plans to link the ATC with a small business incubator geared to fledgling manufacturing companies.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Society of Mechanical Engineers
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Title Annotation:includes article on Hagerstown, Maryland's Advanced Technology Center; US Department of Commerce assistant secretary Deborah Wince-Smith
Author:Brandt, Ellen
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Article Type:interview
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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