Doomsday is not around the corner.
When midnight tolls Dec. 31, 1999, the business world will not come to a halt. Equipment will operate, accounting systems will run and security systems will let workers pass.
In a perfect world, that is.
In this world, you can't be too sure what havoc computer systems will wreak if they are not programmed correctly for the year 2000.
``That's the reality of the situation,'' said research director Matthew Hotle of Gartner Group, a business research company in Stamford, Conn. ``Companies have to face this and spend money now to get it fixed. There are no do-overs, no ways to legislate the problem away.''
It's not too late to rectify a potentially uncontrollable situation, according to several computer experts, though many say companies should have begun addressing the issue this year.
``Instead, it was a year of slow progress,'' Hotle said. ``We think the year 2000 crisis will cause significant financial impact.''
``Think of all the microprocessors bought in the past 10 years,'' said David Hall, an educator and managing director for Chicago-based Imbedded Systems Engineering Inc. ``Even if only 10 percent of microprocessors work with dates, if they fail, it can shut an entire plant.''
Here are answers to some commonly asked year 2000 questions:
What areas does it affect?
Virtually every segment of a firm could have some problems.
Because of that, injection molder Lacks Enterprises Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., is launching a corporatewide effort to fix the problem, said Gary Walker, Lacks director of management information systems.
Walker broke down the work into three areas. The first area is software packages, where the company is obtaining year-2000-compliant versions of mainframe programs. A more difficult task is customized software, Walker said.
Louisville, Ky.-based mold-simulation software supplier C-Mold, a division of AC Technology North America Inc., would agree with that assessment. Marketing director James Spann said that, while manufacturers are providing updated packages, unconventional programs are another matter.
``The problems ... come when a company buys a third-party program and patches it together,'' Spann said. ``You paid a programmer to develop some sort of system five or six years ago, you can't find him now and you don't know how to get to the dates to make changes.''
The second area concerning Lacks encompasses inventory, accounting and other business systems. The firm has more than 300 personal computers and 100 software packages, many of them tied to business systems, he said.
Finally, the company must evaluate programmable controllers, security systems and other hardware.
Imbedded systems — hidden computer chips connecting many plant operations — could cause the most headaches, Hall said. They could include valves that regulate the flow of chemicals through plant equipment, environmental monitoring systems and automated systems tying the production floor to other operations.
``A chemical flow valve might do its job by monitoring time,'' Hall said. ``All of a sudden, the date becomes zero and the system goes into an endless loop. It might fail or freeze.''
Another problem area could be shipping and ordering systems, said Robert Cohen, vice president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va.
``There are lots of levels of abstraction,'' Cohen said. ``You have to look at the interfaces within each system and whether the information received might be corrupted. You have to be vigilant.''
How should the work be done?
Auto supplier Freudenberg-NOK GP of Plymouth, Mich., began by assessing its 10 major business systems, said Hiel Lindquist, information technology director. The firm then inventoried its microprocessors. Software vendors were contacted to ascertain year 2000 status, he said.
The last stage is remediation, or changing the faulty computer coding. That can take as long as a year, he said, and might not be completed by the year 2000.
What will it cost?
The price tag could be anywhere from several thousand dollars to millions, depending on the operation's size and scope of problems.
According to Gartner Group, a medium-sized inventory system has about 1,500 lines of code. Changing those lines would cost about $10.5 million, the group estimated.
The research group estimates that changing out software will cost companies worldwide a total of $300 billion to $600 billion during the next two years.
James Lloyd, vice president of information and network resources at Dearborn, Mich.-based United Technologies Automotive, said UTA will spend several million dollars to comply. Walker at Lacks Enterprises said his company already has spent more than $300,000, with a lot more work to be done.
How long will it take?
If a company starts now, it is possible to complete the evaluation and remediation process by the end of next year. It could take much of 1999 to test equipment and make last-minute changes.
Starting now is critical, said Hotle.
``We don't want 1999 to be a year of panic,'' Hotle said. ``If companies start then, it becomes meatball surgery, like that done by MASH units in Korea. You won't be as concerned about final reconstruction as you are about patient survival.''