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Behind the boom in automation

Behind the boom in automation

Randall Webber has been the president of Humphrey, a manufacturer of pneumatic controls, since 1988. He is a member of the company's board of directors and chairman of South Haven Coil, a Humphrey subsidiary. Webber joined the company in 1976 as controller, and was subsequently promoted to treasurer, vice president of operations, executive vice president, and general manager. Just prior to joining Humphrey, Webber was controller for Wells Electronics. He was also a former senior accountant for Peat, Marwick, and Mitchell.

The drive to upgrade the nation's factories has been a major force in fueling the recent economic expansion. The CEO of a company that supplies the surging automation market analyzes the factors behind this growth.

Design News: Has the boom in automation investment peaked?

Webber: We may see some cooling off, but there are trends that point to a strong demand for automation technology for many years to come. Not only are major users, such as the automotive industry, continuing to install new equipment, but industries that many of us thought were on the decline are being reborn--thanks to automation.

The textile industry is a prime example. U.S. textile companies have received a boost from a new trend to custom-manufacture clothes. Shoppers can now get jeans that are tailor made--with the help of automated measurement and manufacturing equipment.

Q: What other automation markets look particularly strong?

A: Over the last few years, the resurgence of the auto industry has spawned new investments in equipment by a wide range of companies that make components, materials, and systems for the car companies. Demand also has increased for equipment for the semiconductor manufacturing industry. That has been fueled, of course, by the development of new and more powerful chips by companies such as Intel.

In the medical field, automated test equipment, such as that used for handling blood and other fluids, has become very important. This is in response not only to health hazards, such as AIDS, but also the move toward more decentralized testing labs. Still another big opportunity for automation is the packaging industry, as food, drug, and consumer goods companies develop more and more new products. Then, of course, because of the intensity of worldwide competition, manufacturers everywhere have no choice but to upgrade their equipment. In short, no matter where you look, there are just so many more opportunities today for automation suppliers than 20 years ago.

Q: Has the U.S. caught up with Japan in manufacturing?

A: We can still learn an awful lot from Japan about the manufacturing process, simply because they were so far ahead of us, particularly in such areas as robotics. Because their manufacturing processes are so good, they turn out high-quality products. In the case of Humphrey, we have benefited tremendously from our 30-year relationship with Koganei, a Japanese producer of pneumatic actuators and control valves.

But I believe the U.S. has now made great strides in catching up with Japan when it comes to manufacturing technology. Just look at the auto industry and the tremendous investment it has made in new plants and equipment. This has resulted in a marked improvement in the quality of our cars, as well as a sharp reduction in product development cycles.

Q: Can you point to any areas of automation where the U.S. is now superior?

A: A very obvious one is the use of computers in production operations. I believe the U.S. is far ahead of Japan. Our Japanese partner, for example, has 60 people totally dedicated to scheduling the factory. At Humphrey, our extensive use of computers for manufacturing resource planning enables us to get by with just six people. The same holds true for order processing, which can take two or three days in Japan. Our system, in contrast, takes just minutes to generate a work order because of our greater commitment to computers in the factory. Order a cylinder this morning, for example, and it could ship this afternoon.

Q: What are some of the most important steps Humphrey has taken to boost productivity?

A: It has to be our network of continuous improvement teams, who meet regularly to solve problems and conceive ideas for doing the job better. At key places throughout the factory, we post the operating results of the company, including such things as shipments, sales, profits, and production waste. As far as I'm concerned, such information and communications are crucial. You just cannot keep employees in the dark. We can't be successful unless everyone in our factory--from engineers to sales staff to production workers--join hands and work together. And to insure this commitment, we issue quarterly bonuses tied to company performance. Everyone has to realize that they must be able to cope with constant change and that the challenges never stop. Our whole drive is to eliminate supervision and have the employees run the company's day-to-day operations.

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