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  1. Technology
November 28, 1988


By CBR Staff Writer

When in Rome, IBM does as the Japanese do to turn out super-high quality AS/400s… Delighted to accept invitations for peeks behind the IBM-plant scenes in Mediterranean climes, IBM UK and a posse of journalists last week found themselves on the road to Santa Palomba. Carefully chosen to combine the financial benefits of building within government-incentivised zones, with access to Rome’s air, road, and rail links, the six-year old mid-range systems plant stands in 261 acres of prime Mezzogiorno land, some 15 miles south of the capital. Designed by Marco Zanuso to replace the nearby Pomezia operation and expand IBM’s European manufacturing activities, the plant resembles a futuristic castle; two bright blue turrets tower above grey outbuildings, which are surrounded, in turn, by a sea of small, gleaming Fiats. Santa Palomba now concentrates, along with the Vimercate plant, up north near Milan, on IBM’s AS/400 and 9370 offerings. It generated around $1,600m last year – some 60% of Italy’s information technology output, Olivetti inclusive, according to plant chief Giorgio Clara. 90% of combined Santa Palomba and Vimercate outputs serve IBM’s European, Middle Eastern and African markets, with sister plants catering for North America, South America and the Far East, located in Rochester, Minnesota and Guatemala. Clara paid tribute to the plant’s adoption of computer-integrated and continuous flow manufacturing strategies, pushed through some two years ago in response to a falling dollar and a simultaneous soar in European labour costs.

Zero defect target A third is quality control; quality costs money – but the cost of not doing quality is much higher Clara explained. In the drive to reach a zero defect target, Santa Palomba now relies upon five external suppliers – supplying between 10% and 15% of its parts – and continuous production line screening; Clara claims that 99% of machines currently shipped are defect free. Other notable feats over the last four years include a 30% reduction in production line and stores space, a 70% cut in operation records, and a 30% drop in the value of the line inventory. From a journalist’s perspective, however, the manufacturing miracle appears to provide both concrete grounds for question dodging, and a notable lack of any exciting on-the floor activity. Notions of full capacity become meaningless within a continuous flow environment, commented Clara, apparently unable to provide any answers to how-many-a-day-type questions, and willing to concede only that the complete manufacturing process for the AS/400 takes 1.6 days. At the moment, however, the plant is running 24 hours a day, with internal monitors showing that machines were reaching the shipping stage at a rate of three per hour. Meanwhile, designer bejeaned engineers tapped the keys and watched the screens of some 5,000 terminals – a far cry from the white-coated, heavily masked individuals performing intricate electrical stunts, now relegated to films, the imagination and the Clean Room. Occasional signs of life were glimpsed in passing fork-lift trucks, queues for the self-service espresso machine, and a room housing a number of telephones. Further enquiries revealed that this was the European 24-hour support line for the 9370; unfortunately, IBM found itself unable to comment on the number of calls it received on an average day.

…and how is the AS/400 UK marketing effort going? Like a train In a high-speed, steam-rollered presentation which kicked off with a pledge to ignore all how many or when style questions, IBM UK’s mid-range sales operations manager Ian Gillespie last week sung the uninterrupted praises of the AS/400. Anticipating what he described as a huge jump in growth, Gillespie projected installations of between 60,000 to 100,000 boxes in the UK by 1992. Breaking down, as evidence, the results of IBM conducted survey of Times Top 1,000 managing directors, he pointed to the AS/400’s ability to satisfy the major cost, competitiveness and productivity procurement requirements. The AS/400, he argued, was

the sum of System/36 and /38 parts, combining the ease-of-use, application, and connectivity strengths of the former, with the architecture, productivity and easy growth pattern benefits of the latter. Quoshing a few speculations he insisted that, with its own software, hardware and operating system, the AS/400 would never be able to run VM, or VM/Mumps; if it did, it would no longer be an AS/400, he quipped. Fourth generation languages gave rise to a slight pause for thought, producing vague, if there’s a need for something across the SAA range then it will be introduced murmurings. Meantime, IBM will continue to push strongly in the agents market, in a bid to satisfy the 37% of managing directors who cited applications as the primary reason for system change. The only limiting factor, he argued, is finding them, and getting them trained up quickly enough. The company has also being doing a bit of research on female arts undergraduates: it sat a group down with the machine and the manuals for five days and left them to get on with it. The survey, seemingly conducted on the presupposition that your average female arts under grad is about as thick as they come, was held up as evidence for ease-of use: 65% were able to produce workable results within a day – a full 5% up on the System/36 – he beamed, naturally refusing to name the best competitor, which produced an ease-of-use result hovering at 59%. Tribute was also paid to the product’s ability to free the user from programmers and analysts via agents, who, in turn, can contact IBM Link; customers will become transformed into telephone users, he claimed. And then there’s that wonderful one company lease agreement. Circumnavigating that teeny black cloud surrounding unfulfilled demand for the B60s, Gillespie pledged that supply will catch up by the end of the year; big UK sellers to date appear to be the B30s, with B20s close behind. Targets to Christmas appear to be between 30 to 40 a day; it’s going like a train he concluded, leaving assembled listeners free to rush for their own.

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