The history of manufacturing is to some extent the history of substituting capital for labor. Devising a way of making things that is more reliant on equipment (or an organizing principle like the Ford assembly line) allows workers to be more productive and generate more output per hour worked. But capital requires, you know, capital. Adding new equipment like robots requires an upfront investment and having that investment payoff depends on scale at which the business operates. Big firms like Roger-&-Me era GM can afford robots even if they have limited capabilities but smaller firms have a harder time taking the plunge. Until now that is, if the Wall Street Journal is to be believed (Robots Work Their Way Into Small Factories, Sep 17).
Robots have been on factory floors for decades. But they were mostly big machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had to be caged off to keep them from smashing into humans. Such machines could only do one thing over and over, albeit extremely fast and precisely. As a result, they were neither affordable nor practical for small businesses.
Collaborative robots can be set to do one task one day—such as picking pieces off an assembly line and putting them in a box—and a different task the next. …
Small businesses often need flexibility “because they’re not just packaging cookies endlessly,” says Dan Kara, a robotics expert at ABI research, a market-research firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y.
Here is a graphic of describing some of the machines discussed in the article.
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Reshoring — moving manufacturing from far-flung global locations back to the US — has been a popular topic both in the general press and on this blog. What’s not to like about it? As long as manufacturing allows average humans without extreme degrees of education or super rare skills to make a decent wage, new employment opportunities in manufacturing are always going to create a buzz.
But just what kind of firms are bringing work back to the States? According to the Wall Street Journal, we are mostly talking about smaller enterprises (Bringing Jobs Back to U.S. Is Bruising Task, Jun 25).
More than 80% of companies bringing work back to the U.S. have $200 million or less in sales, according to the Reshoring Initiative, a nonprofit that encourages companies to return production to the U.S. Many supply parts to bigger companies or, if they sell directly to consumers, are seeking to cut out lengthy supply chains from Asia.
But big companies have the resources and experience to hopscotch around the globe. It’s harder and riskier for small firms to do the same.
So for every General Electric moving appliance manufacturing back to Kentucky, you have lots of firms like Chesapeake Bay Candle dealing with much smaller product lines. To some extent this is not too surprising. Whether you are GE or Chesapeake Bay Candle, managing a long supply chain or navigating cultural differences is nontrivial. One of those firms, however, can much more easily absorb the cost of having in country staff or can resort to throwing around its sizable weight to get a good deal. Further, a multinational like GE can also have ambitions of growing in China that may not be a priority for a small player like Chesapeake Bay Candle.
While it is not surprising that smaller firms play a big role in reshoring, that is also a problem. (more…)
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Today’s Wall Street Journal has a special section on “Unleashing Innovation in Manufacturing”. Among the more interesting pieces is a report on Roland DG, a Japanese manufacturer of industrial goods like wide format printers, milling machines and vinyl cutters. These all sound like boxes of metal filled with electrical components that should be built up by a team of workers as they move down an assembly line. But that is not how Roland DG rolls. Instead, they have each machine built by one person guided by a computer that displays instructions, makes sure the correct hardware is presented, and monitors what is done through a networked screwdriver (Japanese Firm Uses a Single-Worker System to Make Its Products, Jun 1).
On a recent day in Roland DG’s factory in Hamamatsu, a city in central Japan, one employee was assembling from scratch an industrial printer that ultimately would be more than twice her size and weigh almost 900 pounds. Another worker who had just joined the company’s fleet of part-timers was making a prototype milling machine. Yet another was assembling the dental-crown milling machine.
A computer monitor displays step-by-step instructions along with 3-D drawings: “Turn Screw A in these eight locations” or “Secure Part B using Bracket C.” At the same time, the rotating parts rack turns to show which of the dozens of parts to use. Meanwhile, a digital screwdriver keeps track of how many times screws are turned and how tightly. Until the correct screws are turned the correct number of times, the instructions on the computer screen don’t advance to the next step.
Workers are rarely confused, but when they are, there’s a button to press that will bring the floor manager running to help.
This video gives an idea of the system in actions.
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Reshoring has been a popular topic. It’s a lot more fun to talk about optimistic stories of manufacturing and its associated jobs returning to the US (or to high wage developed nations in general) than to focus on companies sending jobs overseas in search of cheaper labor. But how does reshoring go in practice? Once a company commits to bringing work back to the States, how easy it to get a factory up and running?
As the Wall Street Journal tells it, reshoring is not a walk in the park, at least not for United Technologies’ Otis Elevator (Otis Finds ‘Reshoring’ Manufacturing Is Not Easy, May 2).
The company’s move to relocate an Otis elevator plant from Mexico to South Carolina in late 2012 was hailed as a sign of a small renaissance in American manufacturing. The relocation was supposed to save money and help fill orders faster by putting the people who make new elevators next to the engineers who design them, and their customers.
Now, it’s clear the reality hasn’t been so smooth. Production delays created a backlog of overdue elevators. Some customers canceled their orders after being left waiting months, people in the elevator industry said. The plant Otis was leaving behind in Nogales, Mexico, had to stay open for half a year beyond its planned closing date to deal with the backlog.
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I am one of those American who is adamantly uninterested in soccer. However, I have to admit that the process of making soccer balls might be interesting. More specifically it can be interesting when a bunch of researchers mess with how it is done.
It turns out that Pakistan is a big player in soccer ball production, as this graph from the Wall Street Journal shows (How Automation Fell Flat in the World’s Soccer-Ball Capital, Apr 28).
As the figure demonstrates, Chinese have been putting pressure on the Pakistanis in part by machine sewing balls while most Pakistani balls are hand stitched (see here for more on that). You would think that would make Pakistani manufacturers anxious for any process innovation that would let them reduce cost and compete with the Chinese.
In that context, enter a group of economists who have better way to cut the faux leather that makes up the ball. Here is their explanation of the innovation (from the Center for Development Economics and Policy at Columbia).
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Why would one firm try to completely copy another firm’s production processes and why would the firm being copied let it happen? If two firms have identical processes, then it is essentially impossible for them to be differentiated. If they are competing for the same customers, they are basically setting themselves up for brutal price competition. But the Wall Street Journal reports that two big players in the semiconductor industry are doing just this (Samsung, Globalfoundries Agree to Adopt Same Production Process, Apr 17).
Samsung Electronics Co. and Globalfoundries Inc. said Thursday they have agreed to adopt the same production process as they upgrade their chip-manufacturing services, an unusual alliance with implications for many designers of computer chips and other devices, notably Apple Inc.
With the agreement, chips produced by Samsung and Globalfoundries will be essentially identical; companies that design chips could have their products produced in factories operated by either company with no extra effort.
Companies generally prefer to reduce their reliance on a single supplier for components. In this case, the pact between Globalfoundries and Samsung provides a new selling point as the two companies try to woo customers away from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the biggest of the chip-making services known as foundries.
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Custom-made bikes are a very small slice of the US bike market. According to The Atlantic, the vast majority of bikes sold in the US are made in Asia and a handful of companies dominate the market (America’s Rebel Band of Custom-Bike Builders, Apr 3).
Though thriving, the 100 or so builders in the hand-built bicycle scene make up about 3.3 percent of the overall U.S. bike industry, which was valued at $6.1 billion in 2012 and is sourced almost completely overseas, according to bicycle industry expert Jay Townley with the Gluskin-Townley market research firm and a report by the National Bicycle Dealers Association. In 2011, 99 percent of bicycles sold in the U.S. were assembled in Asia—93 percent in China and six percent in Taiwan.
Additionally, just four companies—Dorel Industries, Accell Group, Trek Bicycle Corporation, and Specialized Bicycle Components—own about half of the 140 bicycle brands available in this country, including Schwinn, Cannondale, Raleigh, Gary Fisher, Trek, and Specialized, Townley said.
The article goes on to note that while small, those custom builders are responsible for a lot of the innovation in the industry. Because their work is premised on doing something unique, they are inclined to take more chances than a larger firm. So what does it take for these small guys to be successful?
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