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Using computers for planning and control.

Using computers for planning and control

From controlling equipment on the shop or warehouse floor, to production planning and scheduling, computers play a major role in materials handling activities.

Every year at this time Modern Materials Handling surveys readers to find out how they use computers, controllers, and software to improve the processes in their plants. This year, we received close to 600 responses to questions about the industrial computer infrastructure--data collection, production planning and inventory management, and equipment control.

The 30% response rate to the 2,000 questionnaires mailed out, and the broad cross-section of industry that these responses represent, enable us to draw statistically valid conclusions about how industry uses computers and software today.

Among our findings:

* More than 28% of companies polled use bar code systems somewhere in their operations.

* The use of distribution resource planning (DRP) software has nearly doubled in the last two years.

* Programmable controllers are the most popular means of controlling materials handling equipment.

* Almost half of the companies surveyed have standardized on a particular controller brand.

To characterize the companies for which these and other results apply, representing 80% of the industrial sector: About 17% of those surveyed work at locations with less than $10 million in annual sales, 30% work at sites with $10 to $50 million in sales, 21% are employed at sites with $50 to $125 million in sales, 19% come from sites shipping between $125 and $500 million, and 10% reported from sites with greater than $500 million in sales.

Also, more than 76% of the companies are in manufacturing, evenly split between processing and OEM (original equipment manufacturing) industries. The remainder come from the non-manufacturing arena.

The amount of money to be spent on computers and systems at these sites in 1989 shows how strong a role computers play in materials handling activities. For computer hardware, these companies will spend a mean of $269,000; for software, a mean of $195,000; and for peripherals, $162,000.

Data collection: the foundation

The bedrock of any computer system is the data that goes into it. Without accurate, timely data, the best control or planning logic is useless.

The majority of companies surveyed, 74%, report using keyboards for data entry. A large number, 61% still use clipboards. But, significantly, more than 28% report using bar code systems, and 11% report using some other form of automatic identification. (Note: the numbers total more than 100% because companies use more than one type of data collection technique).

The use of bar codes, perhaps the fastest growing data collection technology, was spread evenly throughout the plant, as shown in Figure 1. The numbers range from 12% in sorting systems to more than 19% in finished goods storage. Two years ago, when we last presented a similar graph, the numbers ranged from 9% in receiving to less than 15% in finished goods storage--a significant change. (See Modern Materials Handling, November 1987, p. 66.)

Bar code use also varies with company size. At the surveyed locations with less than $10 million in sales, only 8% report using bar codes for data collection. Close to 50% of sites with more than $500 million in sales use bar codes. In between, 20% of locations with $10 to $50 million in sales use bar codes, 30% of those in the $50 to $125 million range use the technology, and 49% of those with $125 to $500 million in sales use bar code technology.

Many of the benefits of bar code systems, including the increases in data accuracy and timeliness, also accompany other automatic identification techniques. In the survey, 9.2% of locations report using magnetic stripe technology, 4.3% use optical character recognition, 3.9% use radio frequency technologies, 2.3% use voice recognition techniques, and 6.8% report using machine vision.

Planning, scheduling: the structure

A good foundation in data collection serves to support the structure of an industrial computer system--the planning and scheduling activities that govern a plant's day-to-day operations and long term strategies.

Companies reported the state of computerization in five planning categories, as shown in Figure 2. Over 71% use computers for master production scheduling, with the figure rising to 80% for the largest companies. In addition, almost 15% note that they have computerization under review.

Nearly 69% report using computers for materials requirements planning (MRP), while 16% are reviewing the use of computers for MRP. For computerized capacity requirements planning and shop floor control, the numbers hover around 50%, with roughly 20% planning computerization in the future.

Far fewer respondents, 34%, use computerized distribution requirements planning (DRP). Most significantly, however, this number is up considerably from the less than 20% that reported using DRP in 1986, the last time we reported on this figure. DRP is an extension of MRP that recognizes the needs of the distribution system in the planning of production and inventory levels.

The survey also investigated the use of MRP II (Manufacturing Resource Planning). Almost 42% of the locations studied use MRP II in their plants. Of these, the majority, over 80%, run their MRP II software on a mainframe computer. About 17% use minicomputers, and 7% use personal computers. The numbers total more than 100% since manufacturers often use more than one type of computer for MRP II functions.

A common scenario features a mainframe host computer holding the central data base, and a personal computer, or series of personal computers generating reports and performing analyses. Today's personal computers are also powerful enough to be the host platform for MRP II for many companies.

Equipment control: the process

With a strong foundation in data collection, and the supporting structure of intelligent planning and control, materials handling processes on the shop or warehouse floor can run smoothly.

Interfacing with both data collection and production planning systems, computers and programmable controllers run much of the materials handling equipment in use today. Figure 3 shows the types of controllers used for six popular categories of materials handling equipment.

In each category programmable logic controllers (PlCs) are the preferred means of control. For packaging equipment, 54% of the respondents report using PlCs, 10% use microcomputers, and 9% use minicomputers. The remainder did not use computer control for their packaging equipment.

For unit load automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), the numbers were: 36% PlCs, 19% microcomputers, 33% minicomputers, and 12% with no computer control. For conveyors, 37% use PlCs, 7% use microcomputers, 5% use minicomputers, and 51% report no computer control.

Overhead crane users report 19% controlled by PlCs, 2% controlled by microcomputers, 4% controlled by minicomputers, and 75% with no computer control. These numbers reflect the fact that many of the cranes in use today pre-date computer control.

Among users of sorting systems, 52% use PlCs, 22% use microcomputers, 12% use minicomputers, and 14% report no computer control. And among users of weighing systems, 32% use PlCs, 16% use microcomputers, 16% use minicomputers, and 36% report no computer control.

Almost half (45.2%) of the companies have standardized on a particular controller brand, while the rest take what the equipment vendor supplies. Among locations with more than $500 million in annual sales, the number standardizing on a brand swells to 61% (see Figure 4).

For optimum effectiveness, these units of materials handling equipment often link with other equipment to form flexible systems. Almost 30% of industry reports that the use of flexible manufacturing systems. A flexible manufacturing system (FMS) was defined in the questionnaire as "production machines integrated with materials handling equipment by computers or programmable controllers." Figure 5 shows that among larger companies FMS use increased to 53%.

Further, 18% responded that they use flexible assembly systems, defined as "assembly stations served by flexible materials handling systems controlled by computers or programmable controllers."

Reader's comments

The questionnaires sent out invited comments from respondents, and comment they did. Their sentiments covered frustration and euphoria, and everything in between. One respondent noted, "we are in the stone age," while another, slightly more advanced said, "we are in the dark ages."

On the positive side, a respondent noted, "Our improved accuracy has enabled us to cut many hours in certain departments." Another enthused, "FMS is the way to go."

Several respondents commented on what they needed in terms of computer systems. One modest request: "We need a CAD to MRP to inventory management to accounting integrated software package."

Others voiced a need for more information, for example, "I would like information on automated warehouses for handling garments." Which brings up the final point--if you have specific information needs in the areas of computers and software, or if you would like to add your voice to those surveyed, please drop us a line. And, refer to the News and Trends section of future issues of Modern Materials Handling to see more results from our survey. [Figures 1 to 5 Omitted]
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Author:Krepchin, Ira P.
Publication:Modern Materials Handling
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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