Resin makers may be tempted to think the extensive reviews they've done on their computer systems with the year 2000 fast approaching have been much ado about nothing.
Shakespearean quotes aside, resin companies expect to make few, if any, changes to their manufacturing technology. But they've still had to invest the cash and work hours necessary just to make sure they'll be able to operate Jan. 1, 2000.
The saving grace for resin-making equipment is that most of it is tied in to the time of day rather than to the day of the week or the month of the year.
``There's far less impact on processing lines than on business transaction systems,'' said Dave Sides, North American information technology director for polypropylene leader Montell Polyolefins. ``The lines are capturing information on 15-second intervals, so there's not a lot of work needed on process equipment.''
At Phillips Petroleum Co. of Bartlesville, Okla., year 2000 director Del Clark said less than 10 percent of the company's oil, chemicals and plastics manufacturing machinery would have to be adjusted.
``We haven't identified any situations where we'd have big or high-cost problems,'' Clark said in a Nov. 5 telephone interview. ``We haven't found any cases where imbedded chips with day-related processing were critical to any instrument or control.''
Doug Snoddy, year 2000 program director for Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich., said Dow ``is in good shape'' with its proprietary process equipment, although such laboratory research equipment as gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers could be affected.
But each system still needs to be checked thoroughly. Some 25 full-time employees have been working for 18 months on the project at Phillips. Sides estimates that Wilmington, Del.-based Montell's full-time commitment, including a previous computer system switchover, includes 30-40 employees, while the number at Dow is 40-50.
Many of the resin companies contacted for this story — including Montell, Dow, Solvay Polymers of Houston, Condea Vista Co. of Houston, Solutia Inc. of St. Louis and Bayer Corp. of Pittsburgh — were using business software from German software giant SAP AG to make their business transactions systems 2000-compatible.
SAP claims nearly 7,000 companies worldwide are using its R/3 system. All of R/3's record layouts, data definitions and date logic were designed with 2000 in mind.
The software updates customer orders, shipping schedules, accounts-payable cash forecasts and dozens of other functions vital to everyday business.
Of the changes needed for resin production lines, most are situations where the problem is not with the machinery itself, but with a software program that will not recognize the year 2000. Some machinery is interfaced back to such programs.
Many of the faulty programs are used to record activity for historical logging. They are not tied to actual production schedules, but need to be corrected to make sure information concerning resin production runs and shipments are preserved.
``It's more a matter of getting into the imbedded software,'' Clark said. ``That way we can upgrade software or firmware instead of replacing equipment.''
Solvay year 2000 project manager Gene Yelvington said even record-keeping software could lead to errors in resin production if left unchecked.
``There could be a lot of bad data and bad numbers out there,'' Yelvington said. ``If you're targeting a specific situation or application, a line might make a wrong grade of polyethylene or make off-spec product.''
Solutia's chief information officer, Johnnie Foster, agreed most problems his company has seen have been at the data storage level, but he added Solutia still is checking all possible areas, including some that resin makers might not think of at first.
``It could be a processor control elevator or emissions from a stack,'' said Foster, whose company had a chance to review its computer systems when it spun off from Monsanto Co. earlier this year. ``It's been quite a bit of work in running this down.''
Bill Gaughan, information technology manager for Bayer's polymers division, said the process controls that are being 2000-proofed at his company cover ``everything from the level of material in a pipeline to extrusion flow.''
In some cases, financial projection programs already are being affected, since they can't project sales and production beyond 1999.
Resin distributors also are looking out for the millennium bug. General Polymers, the distribution arm of Ashland Chemical Co. of Columbus, Ohio, has had a handful of employees working full time on the issue since last spring.
GP mostly will adjust existing software to handle the problem, according to Bobbie Miller, Ashland's distribution administrative operations manager.
``For the most part, we're tweaking existing systems,'' Miller said. ``Most of our systems will require some change.''
In the distribution world, shipments bound for California would not end up in Calgary — they would not be sent out at all. Overall, 30 percent of Ashland's lines of computer code — 900,000 out of 3 million lines — will need to be changed.
Miller said GP has been affected differently than Ashland's chemical operations because its business tends to be more individual-based.
A major challenge, according to Montell's Sides, is to solve the 2000 problem while continuing to address other information technology issues.
Often this review process has led resin makers back to the companies that originally made their machinery to find answers and information. As Solvay's Yelvington puts it, ``When there's a little black box, you can't tell what it will do inside.''
``A lot of companies will spend a lot of money and do nothing but work on how to solve the 2000 situation for the next two years,'' Sides said. ``Successful companies will have to solve the problem while improving the up and down flow of information.''
With 23 years of process control experience under his belt. Snoddy is qualified to pass judgment on the 2000 issue, which he describes as ``a fairly straightforward project.''
``It's not a difficult technological challenge,'' Snoddy said. ``It's a logistics project to a large extent. You need good project management skills and you need to be thorough in getting after the program.''
This logistics element is evident at Bayer, where Gaughan said the company has been challenged to cover both large, integrated manufacturing sites with 3,000 employees all the way down to smaller, individual process sites with only 30 or 40 workers.
All the officials contacted were confident their companies would be 2000-compatible by mid-1999 at the latest. Phillips' Clark goes so far as to say, ``I sleep well.''
Clark said of initiating Phillips' effort: ``It was really fear of the unknown. Until you start looking and verifying, you're not sure what you have. Some of our fears were unfounded, but when you get down to the nitty gritty, it's an assessment that has to be done and it takes time, money and effort.''