Japan's Latest Innovation: Computers That Innovate

If there is a single key to Japan's economic miracle, it is incremental innovation. Japanese companies market seemingly endless streams of new products by adding extra features to recycled designs. While U. S. researchers strive to belt an occasional home run, the Japanese score frequently by hitting singles. And now, they're working on technology that could further boost their batting average.

Hitachi Ltd. has just unveiled a prototype computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) system that automates incremental innovation. Imbued with artificial intelligence, the system responds to oral questions about the feasibility of a proposed improvement and its effect on price and delivery. Once a design concept is selected, a so-called expert system takes over and automatically handles all routine engineering. This computerized expert can also plug in special requests for custom features from major customers.

Finally, the CIM system automatically translates the design data into instructions for the robots manning a flexible manufacturing system. Beyond speeding up the job of improving existing products, Hitachi notes that the new system will give engineers more time to dream up brand-new products.

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