Under Control


I used up about a jillion frequent-flyer coupons buying my wife's airline ticket for our trip to Japan. The main reason for the trip was to visit some old friends at Yaskawa Electric, a company better known in the U.S. as the maker of the Motoman robot.

Among other things, Yaskawa's engineers are involved in emergent-systems programming for the Bullet train, called "Shinkansen" in its native land. Carrying up to 1,300 passengers, the train's top speed is 270 kilometers-per hour, or 167 miles-per-hour, for the metrically challenged. The train moves by means of a 25-kilovolt distributed electrical drive, i.e., no locomotive. Using 3,500 cars servicing 40 stops, the frequency of service during peak hours is every five minutes.

The programming issue involves questions about how to reconfigure the train schedule to take into account unexpected events, such as high winds, equipment problems of heavy traffic. Data sampling along the track occurs every three seconds. The rail line's control engineers need to deal with unexpected situations quickly using a software platform that will also be able to handle future use-demands. The life of the control engineer is much like that of a firefighter: long period of boredom, punctuated with moments of panic.

The future will see increasing speeds - to 350 kilometers-per-hour - with station service frequency of three minutes. Rule-based, object-oriented software is the designated means for achieving that.

The Maglev, a 550 kilometer-per-hour magnetically levitated linear motor system using superconducting magnets is also under development.

The bullet train lived up to its advance billing. The creature comforts are great - better than any first class aircraft cabin I've ever been in. Reserved seating with plenty of leg room, and real quiet. One of stops was in the city of Kyoto, wherethere are hundreds of religious shrines. With my wife, I visited shrines in the old capital grounds, a kimono show, and a demonstration of an original system for punched-card control of weaving operations.

Part of my visit entailed representing EG&G Technology Access Partners, a venture-capital fund. The goal of the fund is to capitalize on the technology developed by the American national labs and their 100,000 engineers and scientists. As an advisor to the fund, I was able to visit several Japanese companies and meet with executives. Mitsubishi, for example, was most impressive. I was also impressed with my hosts' understanding of the role technology plays in the creation of wealth and new markets.

Japanese business culture can be difficult. The host sits quietly while the guest makes a presentation. The "audience" may nod, but there's little real agreement or disagreement. In fact, there's little feedback at all. At the end of hte bullet-train ride, I gave a presentation at a Yaskawa software facility. But I never could ascertain the level of understanding of the audience. It wasn't until after several hours, when I suggested having some beers, that things loosened up.

I've been in Japan many times, but it was the first time for my wife. We took a bus tour of Tokyo one morning, and she visited a Japanese home. Her impressions of Japan were that it is just like Chicago, except for the language, and it is very expensive - $25 for a coffee shop breakfast, $100 for a coffee-shop dinner. She thought the people friendly and that they dress well.

I agree with her, although I spent most of my time in business meetings. I found the focus on technology and innovation refreshing, i.e., no MBA talk. The bubble economy has burst and the Yen/Dollar ratio hovers around 100-to-1, but companies I visited were still more interested in attacking rather than retrenching. Most are more interested in the next five years rather than the next financial quarter. Profits in the next quarter are, after all, derived from decisions made five years ago. Decisions made today bear mainly on the year 2002.

The economic problems resulting from the burst bubble, however, are severe. There is pressure to reduce manufacturing cost, and a definite trend toward "build-to order." So called "salary men" are under pressure to work even harder. Although we, as Americans will benefit from the Japanese short-term problems, they will be back.

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine August 1994 Page 12

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