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Communications at the Edinburgh Symposium

 
 

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COMMUNICATIONS at the M.E.E.I. SYMPOSIUM

Commentary by H.V. Beck

 

The N.E.D.C. report assessing the economic prospects of the electronics industry stresses the unique and indispensable role that the industry has to play in modernising and increasing the productive potential of the whole of the nation's economy as well as contributing directly to the balance of payments.  The report was published, most appropriately, on the first day of the Edinburgh Symposium on Management and Economics in the Electronics Industry.  There was every indication, from the 96 contributions to the Symposium, that the industry is taking its task very seriously.  Delegates were able to sample a great deal of the constructive thought that has gone into such diverse activities as marketing, production, R&D management, new product planning and training as well as topics like managerial control systems, University/Industry liaison and management/union relationships.  Many of the papers dealt with these subjects from the standpoint of the communications, telecommunications and consumer sectors of the industry, which in the U.K. accounts for just over half the £1000 million or so annual equipment output.  Several of the communications papers were from abroad.

Dr. A. Goldsmith of the U.S. Department of Transportation, in a very informative paper, stressed the crucial and growing importance to the transportation field of communications in the broadest sense.  They are, for example, essential for the solution of queuing problems such as in the landing and disembarking of aircraft and in making better use of existing roads. A systems approach is necessary in which the total transportation problem is considered. Thus getting a person or goods from door to door is the fundamental problem whereas present practice is to consider only one or two segments of the journey. The U.S.. Government has set up a single cabinet—level department to achieve a balance and synthesis of the various modes of transport and this in turn has led to an overall view of the communication requirements on which an integrated transportation system would depend.

The transportation field was a good example of the change from a component orientated to an applications intensive phase predicted by H.S.Kleiman of the Battelle Institute, Columbus, in another paper. He pointed out that whereas the 50's were innovative and the 60's reinforcing, the 70's would be evolutionary. Sophisticated systems based on the electronics technology already established would be the dominant feature of the electronics field for many years to come.

With the Post Office purchasing two thirds of the approximately £200 million output in the telecommunication equipment sector of the industry, it was not surprising that several important contributions were from this source.  Thousands of millions of pounds will be invested over the next thirty years and the new Corporation is devoting a great deal of attention to the planning function and to the organisation required to meet the return on capital requirements prescribed by the Government.  The Corporation's assets in the telecommunications field stand at £2000 million and an 8½% return on capital has been laid down.  In a sense contrary to Mr. Kleiman's views, the 70's and beyond are likely to be innovative as well as evolutionary in this field for at present its electronic content is relatively small and some of the major developments will come through the application of electronics technology in a predominantly electromechanical environment.

A paper by D.Breary described the planning techniques of the Post Office Corporation with. particular reference to the Trunk Telecommunications network.  The general scheme is to determine the requirements of the society of the future, predict the technologies likely to be available, draw up alternative means of meeting society's requirements and then to study and select from the alternatives.  A U.K. Trunk Task Force has been set up to carry out this work, which will include the building of a computerised model of a specific U.K. trunk network.  Two factors of crucial importance in this project are the simplifications and simplifying assumptions made to render the planning effort of manageable proportions.  Thus three base dates, 1975, 1985 and 2000 have been selected rather than a continuous time spectrum and a judicious selection of a few from among the numerous alternative combinations of technologies, routes etc. has been made.

The cost of providing services is a dominant feature of the planning technique.  Thus, in the case of the viewphone, an assessment has been made of the technology required, an estimate has been prepared of the rental and call charges that would have to be made and these have been related to the distribution of incomes.  From this information the volume of likely sales has been predicted and this has enabled an estimation to be made of the required trunk capacities.  One questioner asked if changes in attitudes in society towards the use of new facilities were taken into account and Mr. Breary assured the audience that this factor was reflected in the prediction of sales against the cost/income criteria.  Clearly this type of work must be carried out to set guidelines for the future and the author of the paper was commendably aware of the need for flexibility so that continuous revision could be made in the inevitable occurance of unforeseen changes in the variables.

Planning was the subject of another contribution from the Post Office Corporation but in another sector, that of R&D projects. The current R&D spend on telecommunications by the Post Office is £11 million per annum.  Industry spends about the same amount on telecommunications R&D, much of which is applied to serve Post Office needs.  The authors of the paper, H.Beastall, R.J.Brown and N.A.Elkins, described their pragmatic approach to the use of established planning techniques.  Their aim has been to make an immediate practical contribution to decision-making without adding unnecessarily to the desk work of those whose primary task is to carry out R&D.  Use is made of information that is available rather than that which is theoretically desirable.  A flow system has been instituted, of which perhaps the most noteworthy feature is the early appointment of a project manager who arranges for a very detailed appraisal of the proposed project, prepares a plan for its execution, reports progress and reappraisal and is responsible, generally, for the control of the project.  One of the difficulties is that the whole R&D programme spans 5 years and while proposals for the first year are precisely stated, projects for subsequent years are specified in only tentative terms. In planning the resources :required for the programme, predicted needs tend always to fall away after the first year while experience indicates that actual needs are likely to increase.  The authors identify the discrepancy between predicted and actual needs as the "planning gap".  Ecological, economic and system studies based on the needs of 10 to 15 years ahead are conducted in an endeavour to reduce the uncertainty due to the gap.

The Symposium was organised by the I.E.E. in association with many other professional bodies, including the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland and the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants.  Several of the papers included discussion on accountancy topics relevant to the electronics field.  One such paper, by R.E.Dick and K.E.Stotesbury, described a cost results system of management accounting in the Post Office Corporation which has as its aim the identification of the cost of all significant activities, the presentation of these costs to managers within three weeks, their integration with revenue and capital expenditure accounts, the provision of data for management by objectives and the rationalisation of manpower, performance and productivity measurements.  An additional requirement is that the system should be amenable to computerisation.  The paper describes the system in some detail.  A trial using manual methods is being carried out in one telephone area and the authors report promising results.  Human factors have apparently played a major part in the implementation of the system for the authors report that over half their effort has had to be devoted to smoothing the path of its acceptance by a few whose natural inclination is to resist the replacement of an older well-tried but limited system.

The application of accounting systems to the R&D function is notoriously difficult.  Most engineers are disciplined enough nowadays to raise no objection to filling in time sheets, so that costs can be fairly readily extracted.  The difficulty however is in relating costs to progress on the project. The closer the work is to innovation the more difficult it is to quantify.  In another interesting paper, a team drawn from S.T.L. and Oxford University presented the results of work aimed at quantifying other factors associated with, the innovative processes, namely manpower requirements and the social benefits of introducing innovation.  The authors, D.L.Thomas, H.Motz, D.C.Young and. T.A.J.Keefer, pointed out that one possible constraint on innovation would be the supply of qualified scientists and engineers (Q.S.E.s).  Starting at a base of 1961 and taking school population as the numerical input they have applied ratios based on manpower statistics to predict the number of Q.S.E.s available for the telecommunications sector up till 1980.  Many factors have been taken into account, such as the "swing away from science", retirement and the brain drain.  Good agreement was obtained with actual figures up till 1965.  Surprise was expressed during discussion at the closeness of the upper and lower limits assigned to the numbers of Q.S.E.s that were likely to be available.  The separation was in some cases only 1%.  One of the authors replied that it had been assumed that corrective action would be taken by the Government to counteract any undue variations in such factors as the "swing away from science" and the brain drain.  Thus delegates were brought face to face with political and social issues.  Whatever may or may not be Government policy in the future, if the supply of Q.S.E.s is not sufficient there will be a constraint on innovation.  This constraint will not just be due to deficiencies in the R&D function but in the implementation of innovation in the production, installation and maintenance areas.  The cost of delays in introducing a high speed digital data system to supersede existing Datel services and the social benefits of reducing the waiting time between the placing of an order and delivery of a product which would result from improved communications has also been examined by this team.

The social implications of the activities of the electronics industry received a surprising amount of attention at the Symposium.  Several speakers and delegates referred to this topic but perhaps the most telling comment came from S. Shima of the Sony Corporation.  Pointing out that the transistor radio had been introduced by Japan and not as most would expect by the U.S.A., Mr. Shima said that its introduction had had a profound effect on family life.  Some members of the same family listened separately to their own transistor radios while other members watched television; if transistor radios had not been introduced, radio services would probably have disappeared and the whole family would be clustered around the television set.

 
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