Scientists and civil servants from the world’s biggest industrial nations met last month to start searching for a design for the “factory of the future.”
Most support the idea. But will it work? And if it does, who will benefit?
Many experts believe that the Japanese will be the commercial winners by efficiently exploiting the ideas of other participants.
Computers in the highly automated, “intelligent” factory will rapidly design and help produce high-quality goods for industries ranging from brewing to aerospace.
Manufacturing will be elevated to a science, and workers will rise from factory floors to computer consoles.
Some 150 American and 80 Japanese companies have expressed interest in turning this vision into reality, with delegates from Japan, the United States, the 12-nation European Community and other countries attending last month’s meeting.
They agreed that international collaboration was the best route to intelligent manufacturing but said there would be at least two years of preparation before the project could begin.
“There has been tremendous progress, and the prospects are bright,” said Katsujiro Kida of Japan’s powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
According to delegates, the crux of the talks was how to ensure equal benefits to each member of the consortium.
But some members say the attempt is futile because they believe that no matter how well the consortium is organized, the Japanese will gain the commercial upper hand.
Even Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, dean of Tokyo University’s faculty of engineering and the brain behind Japan’s Intelligent Manufacturing System proposal, said there were barriers to Westerners seeking access to Japanese technology.
In remarks to U.S. and EC officials, he said foreigners would be at a disadvantage because so few speak Japanese. Many suffer from a “not invented here” syndrome, which hinders their recognition of significant Japanese work.
The self-effacing reluctance of Japanese to speak about themselves is another obstacle, he said.
Organizational factors may be even more important, many Western delegates said.
Japanese corporations are better built to fuse ideas from research, development and marketing divisions and quickly turn them into product. Researchers in the West tend to be more concerned with pure research, making a creative breakthrough and publishing new knowledge.
In contrast, Japanese researchers are more likely to focus on achieving commercial success for their firms rather than boosting their own academic reputation.
“The system as a whole is more inclined to focus on products and how to create them by improving existing technologies--rather than on a breakthrough,” said Stefan Speidel of the Japanese subsidiary of Germany’s Siemens AG.
Delegates agreed that funding be proportioned equally and balanced by region and the character of collaborating institutions. And they agreed to let legal experts work out knotty questions over things such as intellectual property rights.
An executive committee is likely to oversee all the parts of the project, making sure they are agreed to unanimously.
This is a key provision for those concerned about Japan taking advantage of others’ ideas.
“We must prevent a Japanese company from working directly with a European university,” said an EC delegate. His fear is that Japanese firms would reap the commercial harvest of basic technologies developed in the West but not yet applied.
Some U.S. companies are resigned to letting the Japanese have the upper hand, said one member of the U.S. delegation.
“It’s possible the Japanese will get more out of it. But if we don’t join, how else could we learn to work in international projects?” he said.
Although international cooperation is common in fields such as nuclear fusion, medicine and other scientific areas, it is unprecedented on a large scale in applied technology.
The smart manufacturing process could set a precedent in international cooperation for tackling environmental pollution and other problems.