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Our FMS industry - at a crossroads?

* The ability to develop advanced software for flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) has given US producers a competitive advantage, but no one nation's FMS industry now holds a clear overall advantage.

* US FMS producers have been able to dominate the domestic market, but have not been very successful at exporting their systems. On the contrary, our FMS producers find their hands full protecting the domestic market from foreign penetration.

* Current users of FMS in this country generally agree that US equipment is somewhat superior, but add that US suppliers are becoming less competitive with foreign suppliers.

These are three of the conclusions drawn from a study recently completed by a staff group in the US Dept of Commerce. Based partly on interviews with dozens of FMS users and vendors, industry analysts, consultants, and other experts, the study is summarized in a new, 128-pg report called "A Competitive Assessment of the US Flexible Manufacturing Systems Industry."

The report includes chapters giving a description of the industry, and records its performance through the end of 1984. A large section contains overviews of the FMS industries in Japan, Italy, West Germany, the UK, and 10 other countries. The final sections deal with current international competition, and an assessment of future competition.

Why the slippage?

Expanding on the reasons for waning competitiveness of US FMS producers, the report states:

"Service and responsiveness of suppliers is important. There is overwhelming agreement that US suppliers are not as responsive to the needs of the customers, not as committed to making the system work, and not able to deliver orders as scheduled.

"There is a general feeling that US FMS suppliers lack the hands-on experience of running an FMS," the report continues. "Most of the Japanese FMS suppliers developed an FMS for their internal use before marketing the product. Some US FMS suppliers do have FMS in their own factories, but this is after much experimenting on the floors of customers.

"There is a general feeling that foreign companies are putting more money into research and development, thereby advancing FMS technology rapidly--although not yet surpassing the US."

To counter these negative factors, the report's authors state, US FMS producers must begin to--among other things--develop better relations with users. Otherwise foreign FMS producers, exploiting the experience gained in their home markets plus their price advantages, will capture an increasing share of the US market.

"Complaints about the lack of service orientation on the part of US FMS suppliers appear to derive from complaints about the US machine-tool industry," says the report. "Rightly or wrongly, user industries view machine-tool builders as unwilling to adapt their products for special applications, as providing inferior service, and as being unable or unwilling to deliver a product in a reasonable period of time.

"Because FMS and machine-tool suppliers are essentially the same at this point, users are reluctant to commit themselves to the suppliers--and consequently to the technology."

Other key issues

The report delves into issues such as defense contractors' use of US-built FMS, the possible positive effects of accelerated demand for FMS, and the need for prospective users to commit to long-term and sometimes unquantifiable gains. Also discussed are the potential effects of US government policies and actions in foreign trade, monetary policy, development of standards, and tax incentives.

On balance, the US FMS industry may be at a critical crossroads, the report notes. If demand for FMS grows rapidly over the next five to seven years; if US defense contractors continue to adopt US-built FMS at the current rate; if the foreign trade and currency situation improves; and if US FMS producers improve relations with users, hold the line on costs, and invest more in technological R&D--then the US FMS industry will likely prosper. It could find itself in trouble by the end of the decade, however, if these "ifs" do not come to pass.

Appendices to the report give details on FMS installed by various suppliers, profiles of suppliers, and a bibliography.

All in all, the report does an admirable job of pointing up key issues that the industry confronts. At $4.75 a copy, the report is a good value as a reference for anyone interested in FMS.

To order, write directly to the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402. Ask for "US Flexible Manufacturing Systems Industry," document number 003-009-00464-1.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:flexible manufacturing system
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Dec 1, 1985
Words:725
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