Manufacturing: A capital system to get ahead of Japan: With state help, UK research could revolutionise complex production processes

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The Independent Online
IT IS a strange fact that usually, the more advanced a product, the more primitive the manufacturing process. While chocolates, televisions and cars are all made in highly automated factories, most aircraft are hand- built, just as they always have been. The same is true of racing cars and gas turbines.

John Puttick, director of manufacturing in Europe for PA Consulting, believes this paradox could give Britain the chance to take a lead. 'The UK has the opportunity to do for capital goods what the Japanese have done for high-volume products,' he said.

Aircraft manufacturing techniques are 20 years behind those in the motor industry, but Mr Puttick believes the gap can be closed.

The British are not good at grasping such opportunities, and whether the new interventionism of the Department of Trade and Industry will make a difference, only time will tell. Richard Needham, the Trade Minister, is currently running a campaign to increase the export of capital goods, but so far it has been directed solely towards sales promotion.

Although Japanese techniques should spread well beyond the motor sector, where they are now concentrated, they will never be appropriate for capital goods, according to Mr Puttick. Just-in-time delivery has limited relevance for a machine that takes several months to build, while total quality is designed to eliminate faults in products that are produced by the million, not by the handful.

The Japanese secret is to simplify: by banning stocks, keeping the factory clear and insisting that components travel the minimum distance, uncertainty and the opportunity for mistakes are minimised. It is no coincidence that the only hardware needed in Toyota's famous kanban system is the plastic tray.

The manufacture of an aero engine needs a different approach. 'Rolls-Royce sells engines on how well and how fast it can tailor them to customer requirements,' Mr Puttick said. 'That means it constantly has to make modifications, test, productionise and manufacture - but these can't be done in sequence.' The skill here is not in simplifying, but in managing inherent complexity.

What is needed is a system that can 'think' in a flexible way, while coping with tasks that are immensely complex. There is already a computer- based system, developed in the US, that goes some way in the right direction. It is called MRP - Manufacturing Resources Planning - and is widely used to make sure the right parts are available at the right time.

But MRP is 'an incredibly inflexible tool' that has none of the finesse of the craftsman's brain: it will become ever more inadequate as product complexity increases.

Mr Puttick said MRP was 'like today's suspension systems, which can handle reasonably bumpy roads'.

'But the road is getting bumpier: the capital goods industry of tomorrow will need active suspension,' he added.

With today's massive computing power, there was no reason why such a system should not be developed, he said. 'Our information technology community could deliver an active suspension type of MRP that would mimic the craftsman.'

The Japanese are already starting to think along these lines and have been studying so- called intelligent manufacturing systems. However, Western software skills are still ahead. 'We do have a little bit of time to put our house in order,' said Mr Puttick.

MRP is often used in high- volume factories, where it is a complex solution, as opposed to the simple one the Japanese offer. As such, it has been discredited in many peoples' minds. The needs of the capital goods sector and those of cars and televisions must be separated for industry to accept that computers can provide the answer.

Mr Puttick believes there is a role for the government to play - bringing engineering and information technology companies together to find out what needs to be done and then boosting the 'minuscule budget' the DTI currently has to support high-technology research. A year ago, it would hardly have been worth making such a suggestion. But now, with a sympathetic Downing Street, who knows?

(Photograph omitted)