The automatic factory-dream or nightmare?

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  • MARGATE CONFERENCE

    FIRST PLENARY SESSION

    THE AUTOMATIC FACTORY

    DREAM OR NIGHTMARE?

    by SIR WALTER PUCKEY,President of the Institution.

    IN December of last year, Orwell's " 1984" causedcontroversy and some consternation among manytelevision viewers who realised what may happen tous thirty years from now. The purpose of thisConference is to show a more limited audience whatthe industrial scene might well be like in 1984 and, Ihope, to help it in shaping course today so that 1984will bring, not the world of Big Brother and theenslavement of the spirit, but one where man willhave achieved greater moral and material advance-ment, and exercised greater power over insecurity,drudgery and inefficiency. In practical terms, wherehe will have achieved Mr. Butler's recent target of adoubled standard of living.

    How much will Automation, or the AutomaticFactory, contribute to these objectives? Are we onthe eve of a second Industrial Revolution? Thesequestions will confront us many times during thenext few days, and in order to provide a basis fordiscussion let me attempt a few definitions.

    Automation (1) was first widely publicised byDiebold(2), who gave creative credit to Harder (3).Diebold quotes Harder's use of it to describe " theautomatic handling of materials and parts in and outof machines "(4). This has the merit of simplicity;I wish I could say the same for other and laterdefinitions.

    By extrapolation, the Automatic Factory is onewhere automation is universally applied whereeverything within is handled automatically.Elementary thought tells us that no such AutomaticFactory exists, as even the master button must have itshuman controller, although he may sit in an office100 miles away. In practice some machines anddepartments are today described as 'automatic' whichstill require people to control them, performing suchfunctions as feeding, inspection, maintenance, andvery important indeed, disposing of the completedproduct, whether it be statistics, or sports cars.

    We conclude, therefore, that it is the trend towardsfuller automation in which we should be interested,and that the very term 'Automatic Factory',attractive though it might sound to many, is a mis-nomer, is misleading and is, indeed, dangerous.

    Are we on the eve of a second IndustrialRevolution? Before deciding let us look back intohistory. The word ' revolutionary' is often appliedtoday, but compared with the total impact of thefirst Industrial Revolution the examples are veryrestricted in effect. Yet any one particular discovery-may well, in the course of time, be regarded by thehistorian as he today regards Watt's engine, thestarting point of a long-term widely applied revolu-tion, and from a number of current examples thedevelopment of the jet engine by Whittle may bequoted. In a matter of only 15 years, the majority offront line military aircraft of the world have becomepowered by an entirely new form of unit; truly, arevolutionary step.

    Or consider the main line railroads of U.S.A. In1947 they had 37,100 steam locomotives and 4,400diesel electric units. Yet only six- years later thenumbers were 11,700 steam locos and 22,700 diesel-electrics. What a revolutionary target for BritishRailways !

    (1) The word itself has a somewhat mixed parentage.It is derived from the Greek automatos selfmoving; AUTOS, self and the stem MAT, moving.To this is added the Latin suffix ION, being or stateof being. See I.Prod.E. Journal, February, 1955.

    (2) " Automation The Advent of the AutomaticFactory " by John Diebold.

    (3) D. S. Harder, Vice-President for Manufacturing, FordMotor Co., U.S.A.

    (4) Harder has more recently defined it as " the automatichandling of parts between progressive productionprocesses ".

    406

  • The First Industrial RevolutionThe first Industrial Revolution had a profound

    effect upon Britain and the world, but many othergreat movements are encompassed in our historicalscene. Industry has, of course, existed for manycenturies, but however much Rome and Greece, forinstance, conditioned our modern lives, I must goback only as far as the period which immediatelypreceded and conditioned the Industrial Revolution,i.e., the 16th and 17th centuries.

    Many individual steps are grouped by the historianto describe a significant trend and identify a periodin history. It is likely to contain widespread socialand industrial movements taking place over manydecades. Using such a basis we might agree thatHall (5) uses it accurately to describe a period which,spread over two or more centuries provided thescientific foundation on which the first IndustrialRevolution was built. " Much more " he says, " hasbeen learnt about Nature, from the structure ofmatter to the physiology of man, in the last centuryand a half (6) than in all preceding time ".

    As Pope said :" Nature and Nature's laws lay hid by night,God said c Let Newton be ', and all was light!"

    But within the time period described by Hall,another revolution was taking shape in which theleading roles were taken by capital and commerce.Britain's overseas trade was her principal source otcapital investment and gain, and her great successin this activity provided the wealth for subsequentindustrial expansion. Among other opportunities theopening of the Atlantic routes gave a new characterto commerce, not only by the greater tonnage shippedbut because of the more popular cargoes carried;tea, sugar and tobacco were in greater demand thanthe pepper and spices of an earlier age.

    It is impossible to declare whether large scaledemand for a product precedes or follows production,but there is no doubt that the two are intimatelyconnected and no consideration of production orproductivity must lose sight of this basic fact. Thelarge-scale use of capital to promote both commercialdemand and production resources has been anessential feature of Britain's progress over the lastfew centuries. " * Two centuries ago not one personin a thousand wore stockings; one century ago notone person in five hundred wore them; now not oneperson in a thousand is without them'. Thisquotation (7) illustrates a feature of the IndustrialRevolution that made a profound impression on theimagination of the time. When capital was appliedto production on a large scale, it gained its profitsby producing in bulk; producing, that is, for massconsumption. Energy and brains were now devotedto satisfying, not the luxurious taste of the classesserved by the commerce of mediaeval Europe, butthe needs of the poor consumer " (8).

    So, therefore, the stage was set for large-scaleindustrial expansion, and into this favourableatmosphere the steam engine was introduced, aninvention with wider possibilities than almost anyprevious discovery. One day in the spring of 1765,James Watt, instrument maker, 29 years old, was

    walking on Glasgow Green, and it being Sunday heprobably turned his thoughts from a contemplation ofHeaven and Hell to a current practical dilemma how could a cylinder be both hot and cold at thesame time. And so was formed the idea of aseparate condenser, and with it the possibility oiemploying steam as a motive power for machines.Eleven years later his first successful engine was made,and within another twenty years his engines " were inuse in mines and foundries, in textile and papermills, and great columns of smoke from innumerablechimneys spoiling the light and colour of the skiesdeclared the triumph of industry and the glory oiman ".

    As a Cornishman I take both pleasure and painin recording that it was among the enterprisingCornish mine-owners that he found his earliestcustomers, who he once described as having " themost ungracious manners of any people I have everyet been amongst ".

    Watt, like many inventors, was not a skilful businessman, and it was Boulton who realised more vividly thepotentialities of this new power unit; he was all forhaste as " the people in London, Manchester andBirmingham are steam-mill mad ". Today, for steam-mill read " Electronics " !

    The realisation that rotary power could be providedby Watt's engines really revolutionised Britishindustry. Many factories required water power toprovide rotary motion, and this placed great limita-tions on their size, location and scope. In 1785 thefirst cotton mill, at Papplewick, was powered by asteam engine, and "between 1775 and 1800 Boultonand Watt erected 289 steam engines in England.The first revolution, the revolution in the textileindustries, was immensely accelerated but not causedby Watt's invention. Until that invention millshad to be placed by the side of streams, and mostof the machinery was made of wood with metalfittings. Watt made it possible to set up mills any-where, and, as engineering developed from his dis-covery of rotary motion, it was easy to provide metalmachinery. Such machinery came into general usebetween 1825 and 1840. Moreover, the applicationof steam power to spinning and weaving was followed,of course, by an immense expansion of the textileindustries. The second revolution, that of transport,and the third, the use of machines for makingmachines, depended entirely on his invention. If oneman in the history of the world is to be taken as theauthor of modern civilisation, it is this melancholymechanic, in whose outlook on life the superstitiousmight perhaps discern a warning of its ambiguousblessings " (9).

    It is interesting here to recall Boulton's greatinfluence during this formative period. Not only hadhe the business initiative that Watt lacked, but hewas in many ways a pioneer in industrial manage-ment. At his Soho works he practised management" (5) "The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800" by A. R. Hall.

    (6) He refers to the period between 1800 and 1950.(7) "The Results of Machinery (1831)" a publication

    of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.(8) " The Ri