'Expert system' blends knowledge, precision to increase productivity

December 02, 1993|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Staff Writer

Imagine combining the knowledge and experience of a company's best workers within a computer system, standardizing everyone's work habits and increasing the efficiency of all employees.

That's just what 9-year-old Annapolis-based Oxko Corp. does for clients in commercial industry and government.

"What we're doing here, some people don't believe in it," said Steven W. Oxman, the company's president. "They think it's magic."

But an "expert system" his company designed three years ago for Elkem Metals Co.'s plant in Alloy, W.Va., at a cost of $250,000 has helped boost its output 15 percent, Mr. Oxman said.

"That's not fiction," he said. "That's real."

The ferroalloys plant, which produces silicon and other metal products, was functioning well. But some operators had developed their own techniques, creating a lack of uniformity among the company's products.

One operator might add more of a certain element to a product, for instance, while another might add less.

"The computer controls how much of suggested amounts of elements are added in," said Chris S. Cupp, a junior knowledge engineer at Oxko, who has designed a similar system for Elkem's Ashtabula, Ohio, plant. "It adds consistency to the process of adding elements. It lessens the risks of going over or under."

"The expert system he put in basically took all the guesswork out of the refining process," said George E. Tabit, plant manager at Elkem's plant in Alloy.

Elkem Metals is a U.S. subsidiary of Elkem AS of Oslo, Norway. The company is one of the world's largest producers of ferroalloys. The expert system at Elkem's plant in Alloy helps employees decide such things as how much refining gas to put in a product, how much time it will take to refine and at what temperature to stop refining it -- important in an industry in which impurities in a product must be kept to a minimum, Mr. Tabit said.

While some might argue that such technology substitutes machines for people, Mr. Oxman sees things differently.

"Once we invented the saw, should we still continue to cut wood by chopping on it?" he said. Expert systems "allows our thinking to get to the next level of use."

Before an expert system can be designed, Mr. Oxman said, its makers must go through an initial phase known in the industry as knowledge engineering, where a company's best workers are interviewed on how things work -- or don't.

The wisdom of those interviewed is then systematically computerized and replicated in a computer program.

Oxko, which has seven employees including Mr. Oxman, has designed 96 systems. Depending on the complexity of a project, it could take a few months or longer to design one, said Mr. Oxman, who founded the Anne Arundel County High Technology Council two years ago and serves as its president.

The council, a confederation of area businesses, schools, government agencies and laboratories, works to broaden the scope of high technology business opportunities in the county through education, public awareness and resource sharing.

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