Manufacturing the system
In September 1971, the IBM System/7 began rolling off a new and unusual style production line at the General System Division’s (GSD) manufacturing facility in Boca Raton, Fla. The following text describing that manufacturing line is excerpted from an article published that month in the GSD edition of IBM News (Vol. 8, No. 18), an employee publication. The illustration below is not from that article.
The line is built around specially designed “shopping carts” that, when stocked with parts to build computers, become self-contained assembly stations.
The new approach is more a variation of modern supermarket techniques than of traditional factory production lines. With display islands stocking many thousands of System/7 parts and with workers loading carts from computer-generated “shopping lists,” part of Boca Raton’s assembly area carries a distinct supermarket appearance.
System/7, IBM’s lowest priced computer, is designed to monitor and control laboratory, industrial and other processes. Its input more commonly comes from sensors -- pressure or temperature gauges -- than from punched cards.
System/7s are already in operation within IBM locations worldwide for training and applications development [see page 2].
Testing automotive exhaust emissions or controlling refineries -- the types of jobs System/7 does -- call for differences in each System/7 production model. Its design, using up to 12 modules to accommodate those differences, led Boca Raton to the “supermarket” approach, believed to be unique within the data processing industry.
Bernard Sassen, a manufacturing engineer who devised the technique, said: “It gives us maximum ability to mass produce custom modules.”
Because there are as many as 59,000 different combinations of parts in the small computers, “conveyor belts didn’t lend themselves to customized production,” Sassen said.
The solution he devised, after looking at three different approaches, involves a “pre-kit” process based on the specially designed carts, in which module parts are gathered, assembled, tested and delivered to the final production area.
The “kit process” also means that much of each computer is built by a single worker.
The technique works like this:
A parts collector, using a computer-generated list of components needed to build a specific System/7 module, stocks a special cart with all the mechanical and electrical materials from the central supply or “supermarket” area.
“Shopping lists” generally contain over 200 different parts in varying quantities ranging from jumper wires to welded sheet metal frames.
Once the parts are collected, the cart is wheeled to a work station where it is clamped into place and becomes a work bench. An assembly technician takes over and assembles the complete module, using mechanical parts, cables and circuit cards.
After assembly, the completed module is wheeled on the cart to a test station, and then to the System/7 final assembly area. Here it is placed in the computer’s main frame, along with other modules which are designed to monitor and control specific processes for a customer.
When all modules are installed, the System/7 is ready for a final test before panel covers are installed and it becomes ready for shipment.
“In the past,” said Sassen, “computer assemblies generally were built on a bench. The assembler, with parts stored on shelving or on the assembly floor, would gather components and build the unit. The unit, or submit, was then sent on to the next operator for further assembly or test.”
Sassen said the assembly of many combinations of parts on a System/7 would have required a large storage area on the manufacturing floor. This factor, along with the size and weight of the modules, would have made traditional manufacturing techniques difficult and costly.