DETROIT - Who's minding the machinery on the factory floor? It could be the person who just dialed in from the California office, over the Internet.
Internet monitoring will not replace auto workers any time soon, but suppliers exhibiting at the International Automotive Manufacturing Conference and Exhibition here this month showed computer-controlled equipment with Internet monitoring links.
Nematron Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich., demonstrated assembly line 'Internet aware' software.
The PC-based system allows an Internet link to send a control panel's worth of information directly from an operating machine to a remote user. That user can monitor such things as lubricating oil pressure and the speed of the machine's task. The user also can tweak the machine's programming to account for the reported conditions.
The network operates in real time, which means instant analysis and correction. The machines are protected by their own onboard software and internal clocks from system crashes or Internet gridlock.
In another example of Internet assembly line intervention, Sun Microsystems Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., supplier better known for its computer work stations, teamed with Schneider Automation Inc.
Using the Java computer language, Sun's JavaStation network computer and a HotJava Internet browser, Schneider connects a Modicon machine controller to deliver color-coded diagnostic information across the Internet. The computer display can show such things as a mechanical or a data malfunction in an automated press.
None of the Internet technology is meant to take workers out of the plant environment; instead, the technology is meant to deal with increasingly complex data monitoring needs related to highly automated manufacturing.
'Machines don't make product by themselves,' said Venki Padmanabhan, a General Motors manufacturing engineer who chaired the International Automotive Manufacturing session titled 'Man in Manufacturing.'
'In the '80s, that was a hope, that you could get to that context. Now we know that, take it or leave it, humans are going to be working in the product manufacturing process.'