Brainstorming Begins On The `Smart Factory'

Three years ago, Japan's Ministry of International Trade & Industry floated a bold proposal: a worldwide effort to develop technologies for tomorrow's "smart" factories--with MITI footing most of a $1 billion budget. The idea immediately ran into flak. U. S. and European officials feared the Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (IMS) initiative was a Trojan horse for Japan to gain access to their leading-edge research. So government negotiators began hammering out guidelines to ensure that everyone would share in the benefits, while companies put their heads together to pinpoint specific needs.

That work is now bearing fruit. The IMS governing committee recently selected six areas to investigate, including pollution-free manufacturing, rapid product development, and global concurrent engineering. Two-year feasibility studies will be launched at an IMS meeting in late February, and some research has started. IMS officials now expect the total investment--paid for by the Japanese government, Europe's Esprit consortium, and companies such as Allen-Bradley, Du Pont, and United Technologies--to exceed $1 billion over five years.

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