We spoke of small electronic computers in the last chapter: of industrial controlling devices consisting merely of a couple of feed-back control loops, having nothing to do but check and regulate the various stages of a manufacturing process. These machines have been designed for a definite purpose; their program is built in and is not exchangeable (except with nippers and soldering irons). Among them are dwarfs which can be bought for less than $1,000 ( £360).
It might seem an obvious step to connect up such production-controlling machines with a big program-controlled computer and thus to create an impressive, wholly automated factory - a plant in which everything, really everything, would proceed mechanically, from the acquisition of raw materials and their processing, the supervision of manufacture and of every detail of production, transportation inside the plant, stock-keeping, sales and accounting, the replacement of blunt tools and everything else right down to the wages of the window cleaners (if it were not done electronically). Big companies have had plans in their files for years, according to which it would be possible to turn over whole industrial sectors to fully automated operation. In many cases, the changeover to computers would have been made by now, if a hitch had not become evident. A 100 per cent automated factory can hardly change its production. If it is making motorcycles today, it will have enormous difficulties next year - if there is no longer a demand for motor-cycles - in swinging over to lawn-mowers. Revolutionary alterations of this kind are troublesome enough in factories of the traditional kind. In a completely automated plant they would swallow up fortunes.
A beautiful and instructive example is provided by the ECME ("Electronic Circuit-Making Equipment") works, a fully automated factory for radio receivers built by the British government. Twenty electronic computers co-operated in running the business. The radios underwent fifty automatic checks during manufacture. Two men were enough to supervise the whole plant, which could make 1,500 five-tube radio sets per day.
But today even these two men need not go to work, for the factory is silent. Altogether, it made 50,000 radios, and they were hard to sell. Meanwhile, years have passed and no one has yet come forward from the government or from private enterprise anxious to risk millions in converting the factory.
On the other hand, in a manufacturing sector which will certainly be producing for many decades to come exactly the same goods that it is making today, full electronic automation has already made great strides: in iron-works and the steel industry.