Title: Designers on the pay-roll 2
Pages: 58 - 63
Author: E.Glyn Price
Text: Designers on the pay-roll 2
by E. Glyn Price
The preceding article discusses the work of two designers who are employed as individuals on the staff of their companies. This feature describes a more unusual set-up- a semi-autonomous unit which provides the other departments of its parent company with an advisory design service. The unit is under F. G. Mackay, shown on the left in this picture talking to a machine operator in the company's factory near Edinburgh. How does the arrangement work out in practice?
The Scottish group of Ferranti Ltd. with 5,500 employees, is untypical of other large British companies in a number of ways. The reasons for this, though complex, can largely tee traced to the facts that the company's products are of an unusually advanced nature demanding much expensive research and development work, that for many years it was exclusively employed on Government contracts, and that it has grown in Scotland at a rate of approximately 10 per cent (compound) per annum. The company has a far larger than usual number of qualified scientists and engineers at all levels of management, and the various trading departments within it enjoy an unusual amount of autonomy.
The Ferranti operations in Scotland began in 1943 when a factory was established at Crewe Toll, Edinburgh, to manufacture gyroscopic gun sights for the armed forces. After the war, the factory's activities were extended to include ground and air radar navigation systems and electronics, but for many years the Government remained the only customer. Nevertheless, the company expanded rapidly and was able to co-operate with the Scottish Council (Developments and Industry) in a scheme aimed to attract more science-based industries to Scotland by training staff from other firms in Ferranti laboratories. Though this scheme has had the effect of making Ferranti into something of a training ground for the Scottish electronic industry, the firm nevertheless remains Scotland's largest employer of scientific personnel, and by British standards has an enviably low turnover of staff.
Sir John Toothill, managing director of Ferranti in Scotland, says, "With such a wide variety of highly advanced products, it is the Ferranti philosophy to give complete responsibility for design, production, marketing, profit and loss, to the departmental manager concerned. The role of the central services, of which industrial design is one, is to guide and help but not to dictate to departments." What this means in practice is that individual departments enjoy almost complete autonomy, and therefore there can be no such thing as a company design policy.
There is, however, an industrial design unit (under F. G. Mackay) which is available to be consulted by the trading and manufacturing departments - but it has no authority to enforce acceptance of its designs. That this industrial design unit exists at all is largely due to the perseverance of Mackay, who has been striving to improve the company's design consciousness for many years although he was appointed full-time industrial designer only in 1963 when Sir John Toothill decided that the industrial design unit should be formed.
Up to this time, Mackay had been working first as an experimental technician, later as a technical illustrator and finally as head of the general art services department; but whenever possible he had been seeking to re-design and improve the appearance of Ferranti's products. ln 1959 the result of this work came to the attention of the ColD, and resulted in a visit being paid to Ferranti by W. H. May all, the ColD's industrial offficer for capital goods. This visit aroused some managerial interest in industrial design which led uItimately to the request that Mackay devote all his time to industrial design work. Since the resulting establishment of the industrial design unit, with a staff of two, Mackay's effect on the design of the company's products has been considerable, though he still has to 'sell' his services within the company.
This system of operation probably could not be recommended to other firms, but it does seem to suit Ferranti surprisingly well. Because of the departmental autonomy and the absence of a company design policy, the industrial design unit is forced to prove its value to the departments by friendly persuasion and by providing designs which are obviously superior to those otherwise available which seems to be the sensible way to operate in a company where so much original invention and development work is constantly going on.
Sir John Toothill, Ferranti's managing director: "The role of the central services, of which industrial design is one, is to guide and help but not to dictate to departments."
The photograph on the facing page shows the prototype Copath curve generator/verifier and matching plotting table as exhibited at the Numerically Controlled Machine Tool Exhibition in London in 1966, The line drawing below shows the whole Copath system, consisting of three different versions of the curve generator/verifier unit and two versions of machine tool control consoles, together with a matching plotting table which is common to all three.
Control systems - an early start
In the early 1950's, when Ferranti was developing various ground and air radar navigation systems, research began on ways of speeding production on the factory floor. Because radar wave-guide blocks and other components required such a great deal of accurate and complicated machining and yet were produced in very small batches, this research led logically to the development of electronic control systems for the machine tools concerned, so as to free the operator from time-consuming setting-up operations and to reduce the amount of skill required for the job.
The first tape control system on a vertical milling machine was installed early in 1957, and since then Ferranti has installed, for its own use, numerical tape control systems on seven more vertical mills, a straight line mill, a jig borer and two punching machines.
As soon as the development of the numerical control systems had proved a practical proposition, Ferranti began manufacturing such
equipment for sale and, with well over 10 years' experience in this field, it is now well in the lead as British suppliers of continuous path numerical control equipment. This has given the company much needed outlets onto the commercial market, and helped it to diversify its interests considerably as well as reducing its dependence on defence contracts.
After some successful experience with numerically controlled machine tools, Ferranti realised that it would be equally possible to raise the productive efficiency of other production departments by similar methods. The first to be tackled was the inspection department, where a machine was developed to examine speedily and accurately components produced by the tape-controlled machine tools, by means of a probe giving a digital readout on two axes. Mackay was consulted on the appearance of this machine, which was produced in a range of sizes, and he probably contributed considerably to its eventual success and at the same time increased the appreciation of the services he was able to offer within the company.
Later machines were developed to combat the shortage of skilled manpower by transferring information direct from rough drawings on to paper tapes, and so drastically reducing the time a production
job need spend in the drawing office. Recently, other machines have reduced the time taken to produce the magnetic tapes for machine tool control systems from punched paper tapes and simultaneously check their accuracy; and an automatic strip message printer has been developed for use in radio controlled vehicles.
The industrial design unit has been involved in much of the development work, particularly successfully in the case of the co-ordinate digital inspection machines and the Copath curve generator and plotter for the numerical control division, and the drawing measuring system and the strip printer for the electronic systems department.
A growing influence
Although the contribution made by the industrial design unit is controlled by the engineer in charge of a project, several years of quiet persuasion and example by Mackay have borne fruit in that many project leaders are now aware of the value of industrial design and ergonomics in development work and make use of the unit's services. Once a project engineer has been convinced by a satisfactory operation, he usually returns to the design unit with future problems, and in this way its influence continues to spread.
A fairly typical example of the way the industrial design unit is called upon to work was the recently introduced Copath 234PS curve generator and plotter system. This equipment produces magnetic tape for Ferranti's continuous path machine tool control systems from punched paper tape produced by a general purpose computer, and at the same time checks input information by a built-in verifier and produces a drawing of the tool centre path on an accompanying plotting table. No precedent existed for the design - a common, even usual, state of affairs in this field - and the development engineers under Donald Pettie were working to have the first prototype unit ready for the 1966 Numerically Controlled Machine Tool Exhibition at Olympia (opening date May 2). Because of the short development period and the fact that no-one had formed a set preconception of what form the equipment would or should take, the industrial design unit had a freer hand than usual.
On being brought into the project at the beginning of February 1965, it did research into the requirements of its design. It was necessary to investigate the likely sequence of operations ('likely' because with such new equipment it is often difficult to foretell exactly how it will be used), examine ergonomic aspects of its operation and the
probable conditions of maintenance, and so on. Having, so to speak, written its own brief, the industrial design unit then decided that the equipment ought to be of such a design that it could easily be worked at by a standing man and that bulk should be reduced, by keeping all equipment below the work height, so that the operator would in no way feel dominated by it. This involved mounting the tape decks horizontally instead of in the more usual vertical position and producing a range of standard low height cabinets.
Because the Copath series comprises three different versions of a curve generator/verifier and two versions of machine tool control consoles, together with common plotting tables, these cabinets had to be designed to accept a wide range of different sub-units, mostly to the standard GPO module, at the same time maintaining a satisfactory appearance. The resulting cabinets are painted olive green and stand approximately 35 inches high, with front panels in light sand. All control buttons are sequentially grouped on a sloping panel along the top edge of the cabinet. Where a tape deck is mounted on top of the cabinet, it is covered by a hinged black lid; and other cabinets have matching but non-opening covers. The plotting table fits alongside the cabinets and matches them closely, giving a united appearance to the whole system. It has a similar control panel along its front edge and matching black covers for its moving parts. The result compares most favourably in terms of cost with off the peg alternatives, and is far superior in terms of appearance and function.
The design drawing machine enables a command tape to be made directly from the design layout drawing. The system eliminates errors due to transferring the data obtained from the layout through the several manual stages. It is fed or teletyped Into the machine and computed and translated automatically. Provision has also been made for interpolating such diverse information as machine tool data.
The Size 5 co-ordinate inspection machine has a working area of 24 x 40 inches, workpiece height of 36 inches and weight of 3 3/4 tons. It is used for checking dimensions of complicated cast and machine components. The metal probe is moved along the component to be examined giving digital readout on x+y axis. The electrical and mechanical controls are at the operator's fingertip.
When the system breaks down
All this design activity was compressed into a few short weeks, and in fact the first prototype unit was finished and packed off to London at the end of April for the exhibition with the paint hardly dry.
The result shows that, even under such adverse conditions, Mackay and his assistant, S. E. Wale, are able to realise considerable improvements in the design of Ferranti products.
However, a typical Ferranti situation now arises. This equipment is so new in conception that some modification of the prototype was only to be expected; and it duly came back from the exhibition with a change to be made.
While the drawer for holding the paper tape is more than adequate for normal closed loop operation, tapes of as much as 900 ft are now to be used, and at such a length the tape's own weight can cause tangling difficulties.. It seems that a second reel, to take up the tape, will be necessary; and this may mean putting the whole sub-unit on top of the machine, and not on the front as at present.
It is at such a stage that the inadequacies of the Ferranti 'consultative' system can appear, and the work of the industrial design unit be nullified. If Mackay can maintain control of all modifications to the original designs, then the results may be no less successful.
But all too often changes may be made almost overnight by members of the various departments concerned with putting a prototype into production. When these are made without feed-back to, or reference from, the industrial design unit, an attractive design can rapidly degenerate into the mediocre. The trouble is not necessarily one of reaction, but rather of a lack of imagination in realising that what appears to be a minor change, not worth reporting to the unit, can have a thoroughly bad effect on the overall design.
It remains to be seen whether Ferranti will continue the present system of offering an industrial design consultancy within the company, or whether Mackay's unit will be given more direct authority. Either way, we can be sure that much of Ferranti's new and advanced equipment will be no less advanced in industrial design terms than in terms of its technical and electronic efficiency.
This prototype automatic communications printer for radio controlled vehicle fleets converts digitary code messages to clear text printed on a paper strip. It measures only 9x 7x 3 inches, and provides the first practicable print-out of communications data for vehicles. The production models will differ slightly in appearance and will probably be contained in a pressed steel case Instead of the casing shown here.
Facts about Ferranti
Ferranti Ltd turnover about £35-40 million
Ferranti (Scotland) Ltd turnover about £10-12 million
employees (Scotland) 5,461
scientists, engeneers, draghtsmen, (Scotland) 635
capital investment (Scotland) £3 million Originally established in Edinburgh in 1943. Now has a factory and numerous laboratories in Edinburgh, a factory and computer centre in Dalkeith, and a factory at Dundee, totalling altogether 700,000 sq ft. Company growth approximately 10 per cent (compound) per annum.