Factories Get A Lot Smarter

Just over a decade ago, Japan launched a sweeping program called Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (IMS). Since then, Japanese industry and government agencies have spent roughly $100 million laying the foundations for a new age of smart manufacturing. Corporations in the U.S. and Europe started joining the IMS effort in the mid-1990s, and they have collectively plowed almost $50 million into their projects.

Now, IMS is shifting into high gear. Over the next three years, the U.S. alone could invest $140 million in its piece of the IMS pie, called Next Generation Manufacturing Systems (NGMS). Charles M. Anderson, who oversees NGMS at the Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing-International Inc. in Bedford, Tex., figures there's good reason for more U.S. companies to join the global campaign. "We've got some pretty impressive results," he says.

For example, a project led by Honda Engineering and Fujitsu Ltd. has developed a model of a futuristic auto-assembly plant without a classic assembly line. Instead of a conveyor, mobile welding robots swarm around car bodies, which are carried on guided transports. Simulations show that the operating cost of such a factory would be $4.3 million a year to make 1,000 cars a day--a huge 87% cut from the typical $35 million cost of running such a plant today.

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