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1998-01-16 23:17:33


Factory Systems Are Being Ignored



There is no large firm that is Year 2000-compliant. But the money to make them compliant is not going into discovering and replacing defective chips. This is especially risky in manufacturing.

The possibility of a shutdown of factories is not being discussed. A domino effect could result.

How many businesses could survive economically if they shut down for a month? Not many.

This is from INDUSTRYWEEK (Jan. 5).

* * * * * * *

The average manufacturer uses dates--and calculations based on them--to drive all manner of business processes that take place inside plant walls. These range from product-data tracking and bar-coding to scheduling and monitoring of preventive maintenance, instrument calibration, and environmental systems. . . .

. . . But relatively few manufacturers are as yet aware of the complex Year-2000 date-change problems that can disable many crucial factory operations. Some companies, in fact, use time-and-date information for as many as 40 different purposes on the shop floor.

When addressing Year-2000 problems, "The No. 1 mistake that manufacturers make is underestimating the risk they face at the floor level," says Tom Bruhn, director of business development for Raytheon Automated Systems, Birmingham. . . .

And make no mistake about it, the impact of Year-2000-caused interruptions to business could be catastrophic, experts say. Should a shop-floor systems snafu be allowed to go undetected until itís too late, not only is the company that caused the trouble at risk, but so are its dependent business partners.

"It could bring an entire supply chain to a screeching halt, because some plants will not be able to deliver," says Bill Swanton, director of plant-operations research at Advanced Manufacturing Research (AMR), a Boston-based research firm. "One little guy not taking [the year 2000] seriously could shut the whole supply chain down." . . .

"You are basically going to have to track down, through layers and layers of manufacturers, some of whom may not be in business anymore, how to deal with a potential century problem [in equipment they sold you]," says Marsha Williams, information-technology manager for Cobe Cardiovascular Inc., a subsidiary of Lakewood, Colo.-based Cobe Laboratories Inc. Cobe manufactures $160 million worth of operating-room and related equipment annually. . . .

"All those Excel spreadsheets that are used to run plant-floor systems are affected," Swanton adds. "Itís sort of like a bee sting. One or two wonít kill you, but 1,000 happening at the same time will hurt. Enough of that will build up so that youíll see a serious performance problem in some plants." And if even one company loses 20% of its production capacity, he states, "that ripples through the supply chain." . . .

When a problem is uncovered, often it canít be fixed by the company using the software, adds Dan Miklovic, senior analyst with Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy. Although itís fairly common for larger companies to hire hordes of COBOL programmers to attack their information-systems snags, he says, "in most plant-floor devices, the code is embedded in ROMs. So you canít change it yourself anyway, and even if you could, most of it is in assembly language, and you canít access it."

What makes issues such as this particularly troublesome is the fact that in many companies itís unclear whoís in charge of Year-2000 analysis and testing initiatives at the floor level. "Thatís an area where no one seems to claim ownership of the equipment," says Cobeís Williams. "Factory-floor systems traditionally are not directly overseen by IT departments." Even though the various Cobe manufacturing units that use shop-floor equipment are willing to claim responsibility for solving potential Year-2000 problems, Williams states, "they donít necessarily understand the scope of the issue. So itís hard for them to appreciate it or raise it to a level of even putting resources against it." . . .

However, not all equipment vendors are convinced that the millennium will be quite the time bomb that some industry sources are expecting. "To me," says David Imming, manager of integrated solutions and Year-2000 project team leader for Fisher-Rosemount Systems Inc., Austin, "there has been so much hype on this Year-2000 situation. Certainly if you look at it worldwide, for government organizations and financial institutions where they have all sorts of date calculations, they have many issues that need to be resolved. And while it needs to be taken very seriously in our industry, there are a vast number of our products that donít care at all what century it is."

At the same time, some experts are concerned that manufacturers might dismiss their Year-2000 sermons as mere hype. "We sort of hate to sound like we are Cassandra in addressing this," says John Jenkins, president and CEO of TAVA Technologies, a Denver-based systems integrator. TAVA has teamed up with Irvine, Calif.-based Wonderware Corp. (maker of the FactorySuite automation package) to offer customers a detailed program called Plant Y2K One. "But over the next 24 months," he says, "thereís a tremendous amount of work to be done."


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