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Automating factory automation

Automating factory automation

An automated factory capable of solving its own problems is currently running on Rod Spencer's kitchen table. Granted, the live-steam generator is only 4-ft across. But the miniature generating plant, complete with a butane-fired boiler, a live steam engine and electric pumps, operates entirely through systems integration software written by Spencer and several of his Raytheon colleagues. The package automatically combines physical equipment characterization as well as the operation intents of the factory--what the plant produces under what conditions. The Spencer compiler assembles and simplifies physical relationships, resulting in fast, compact, and reliable real-time software control. Spencer says, "Today's automation often means inflexibility. The cost for reprogramming stands in the way of adapting to changes of equipment and experience." The system starts with a blank computer screen. Inputting a bar code triggers characteristic charts for each piece of factory equipment, feeding information into the data set. This includes data such as flow, pressure, and temperature. "If we add a new pump, we click on the web site of the pump's manufacturer and download performance specifications," Spencer says. The operator then "superimposes the process intent" and the system does the rest. Like an engineer, the software can effectively teach itself to solve problems on its own. He says, "This allows the fast inclusion of the single most important aspect of automation...operational experience." Spencer acquired the sole rights for his creation last year and is currently trying to secure the $4 million in capital needed to launch the project. He will initially focus on the semiconductor and printed circuit-board industries. VOICE/FAX (603) 424-4028.

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