Traditionally, there would be a group of workers who would assemble cars. Skilled manual workers operated lathes and cutting tools, this would need lots of training and experience. The workers needed the ability to adapt to changes in task specifications. However unskilled and partly-skilled workers had to sort out and assemble these pieces by hand.
Engineers who designed the cars had to work with paper and drawing equipment, producing one or two dimensional diagrams and plans. However these plans often had to be redrawn from scratch if testing had failed. Engineering designers who worked in teams had to work simultaneously on one paper drawing or make amendments on photocopies. To test new products they built scale models or prototypes. These engineers were then required to breakdown designs into parts, estimate raw materials required and write working instructions for production line workers.
Car Production As It Is Now
Now unskilled or semi-skilled operatives oversee machine tools, programmed to automatically cut predetermined patterns and shapes. The job remains the same for the worker regardless of changing tasks carried out by the machine tools. The sorting and assembly of parts is now often carried out by computer controlled robots.
Programmed machine tools and robots produce work of a uniform quality and therefore only random quality testing is carried out. Some FMS systems incorporate their own quality control. These are the dramatic changes that have occurred in the roles of the manual workers.
Production and Assembly
The introduction of computers to the production line has allowed the construction and assembly of parts to become increasingly automated. The punched paper tape used in numerical control has been replaced by computer programs controlling the work of machine tools (CNC), giving a greater accuracy and consistency of production of parts. Skilled human machinists are increasingly being replaced by CNC controlled machines and their unskilled operators.
In addition to machine tools, other areas of the production line are becoming automated. Robots often take the place of humans previously employed for the assembly of parts and construction of the finished product. Flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) have been introduced where a computer has control of the entire production line. Machine tools, robots and conveyor belts are linked to the main computer, which not only controls the processes but is able to report the progress of each work piece throughout the system.
Designing And Testing
The introduction of computers has also greatly changed the way design and testing of products is carried out. The conventional methods of drawing designs by hand and building prototypes for testing have been replaced by Computer-assisted Design Technologies (CAD). Engineering designers now work at computer screens, where they can draft and visualize the products they are designing. The two and three dimensional designs produced using CAD, can be quickly and easily modified, if required. CADs ability to simulate eventual performance has greatly decreased the time new products spend in the design and testing stage, which would normally have been expected to consume a major part of the overall manufacturing time. Using CAD has required Engineering Designers to have a computer literacy not previously necessary and has largely dispensed with the use of technical and engineering drawing, by hand, that was previously an essential skill.
Computer-assisted Manufacturing technologies (CAM), an extension of CAD design which determine the quantities of materials needed and instructions required to produce an item, have further changed the engineer’s role. Traditionally, engineers had to interpret their plans into working instructions for use on the production line and estimate quantities of raw material required.
The combinations of CAD/CAM technology relies on the capability of computers to process, store, display and transmit large amounts of data quickly and without degradation of quality or content. The combined technologies, often referred to as Computer-assisted Engineering (CAE), are able to give instructions directly to the FMS systems controlling the productions line, through Local Area Networks (LANs), without the need for human intervention or communication.
There is a widely held belief that the automation of the production line has resulted in both unemployment and a deskilling of the workforce. A research paper by Haskel and Heden, found that demand for unskilled labour in the UK manufacturing industry had considerably decreased as a direct result of computerization and that even skilled labour was gradually being supplanted by machines. Other writers, such as Morton, writing for the “Economist” suggest that jobs are not disappearing, just changing, and that the workforce, in meeting the new needs of manufacturing, will learn new skills to replace the old ones. However, what is not disputed is that jobs, particularly on the production line have changed and that some skills and trades have become redundant.
Dr. Joseph Monroe, in his article “Computers and Work”, suggests that the introduction of computers into manufacturing has greatly disadvantaged and demoralised the production workers, leaving them with boring and repetitive jobs, under constant monitoring and surveillance. He believes that computerisation has allowed management to exert a greater control over the workforce.
Advantages for employees include the undertaking of hazardous work being transferred to robots and some companies teaching their employees new skills to replace the redundant ones.
Many manufacturers argue that computers are an essential element of manufacturing and systems such as FMS are necessary to meet today’s market demands for small batch production and to keep up with fierce competition and the pace of technological change. They suggest that computerisation offers the benefits of a consistent quality of products and a considerable speeding up of the manufacturing process, particularly in design and testing, e.g. Boeing, was able to cut the design and testing stage of their 777 aeroplane by 90% using CAD technology. The speeding up of the design and testing process often results in considerable savings to a company as Lockhead Martin report.
A disadvantage of computerised manufacturing is the huge capital outlay required to implement systems like FMS. The recouping of this capital is often slow and difficult to measure. Indeed several authors, including Paul Strassmann, writing for Computerworld, suggest that the investment in computerised systems is not economically justified by gains in productivity.