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Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems

Examination of Brown, Lamming, Bessant and Jones (2000) of three technological changes in a large U. S. manufacturing firm provides a number of insights into the opportunities and obstacles facing operations management in changing the traditional approach to technological change. The company and union involved in the study were among the pioneers in agreeing to contract language establishing joint committees to address new automation issues outside the confines of collective bargaining.

The operations managers put in place were chartered to carry on advance discussions of the human and organizational consequences of automation change. However, after several years of meetings, briefings, and the like, both parties found themselves stymied by their failure to move beyond a few limited experiments in job redesign. Case studies provide four findings of interest. First, they revealed how thoroughly pervasive traditional assumptions about motivation and authority can be even in an organization committed to change.

Despite senior management’s pronouncements signaling a shift in strategy, line managers and operations managers continued to believe that the only acceptable justifications for technological change were those that promised to reduce significantly the direct labor content of production activities. Even when aware that their requests often resulted in increases in indirect labor, managers relied on traditional accounting methods and evaluative criteria as their principal guides.

On the one hand, they admitted dissatisfaction with accounting methods inappropriate to – and, indeed, often antagonistic toward the development of a coherent manufacturing strategy. On the other hand, they despaired of their own ability to convince financial staff that alternative methodologies were available and appropriate to the task. Second, the case studies strongly suggested that intraorganizational conflicts associated with the development and implementation of new technology can make it difficult to implement changes in operations management relations without simultaneous change in other facets of the organization.

Two key sources of intraorganizational contention were evident: (1) competition among subunits (for example, different functional groups) for a share of the finite resources available for process improvement led to closely guarded change efforts; and (2) proposed changes that commonly cut across functional boundaries ignited conflicts that reduced the willingness of change proponents to reveal their plans too broadly or too far in advance. In combination, these two sources of intraorganizational conflict made it exceedingly difficult to engage the union as a partner in crafting innovative approaches to technological change.

Lemos & Porto (1998) have written a research book on ‘technological change at work’. They distinguish three main areas in the change of work caused by new technology: i) work tasks and skills, ii) job content and work organization and iii) supervision and control. Based on case studies and literature, they argue that new technology reduces the number of complex tasks requiring manual skills and abilities and generates new complex tasks which require mental problemsolving and interpretive skills and abilities and an understanding of system interdependencies.

Tacit skills and abilities associated with the performance of work with the old technology, however, are still required. Although characteristics and capabilities of technology will independently influence task and skill requirements, the content of jobs and the pattern of work organization will be important subjects to managerial choice in the design of work. Lemos & Porto argue that new technology should have a complementary, supportive, role in the jobs of workers, instead of playing a replacement role only. New technology asks for a detailed consideration of work content and work organization.

Lemos & Porto illustrate two directions with respect to the organization of supervisory control tasks. In some instances operations managers have attempted to use new technology to make operations more visible and to improve the certainty and confidence of management decision-making. This has resulted in a centralization of the control of work operations. In other instances managers have sought to use new technology to lay greater emphasis on the delegation of decision-making, to points close to the production process itself.

This was partly due to recognition of the fact that some new technologies eroded aspects of the role of first-line supervisors and were conducive to a degree of team autonomy among workgroups. There are many new technologies utilizing advances in computerization and automation in the day-to-day operations of manufacturing and service systems. Many of these are also components of a CIM or CISS system. For example, computers are being used to a greater extent in monitoring quality and in putting together day-to-day production schedules.

In inventory control, Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) can respond to computer controls and mechanically move inventory items using bar codes. Also, Electronic Data Interchanges (EDI) link a firm’s ordering system to a supplier’s computer for automatic ordering of supplies. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) can rout batches of items mechanically between work centers. The rapidly advancing field of Artificial Intelligence/Expert Systems (AI/ES) can aid in making complicated decisions in such areas as scheduling and routing.