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Potholes!

It was a bad winter in Chicago and, frankly, pretty much everywhere in the Northern part of the country. If April showers bring May flowers, then January snows bring February potholes. Or at least that is the conventional thinking, but is Mother Nature really the only cause of potholes?

That is the question asked by an OR/MS Today1 article. And is there anyway not to be intrigued by the headline “Pothole Analytics“?

The article is written by Lucius Riccio who, among other things, is a past Commissioner of NYC’s Department of Transportation. His contention is that the formation of potholes is not independent of how a city treats it roads and that Gotham may just have been asking for a ton of potholes. Here’s the punchline to the article.

Clearly, fixing potholes is an essential and commendable thing to do. And to do so efficiently is a worthy management objective. Of course, it is not how many you fill but how many you don’t fill. Or put another way, how long do they remain in the street breaking axles and blowing out tires? But in addition, I think the fixation (pun intended) with potholes is the wrong approach.

A high number of potholes is indicative of a failure to maintain the streets. Fixing potholes means the smart thing hasn’t been done, which is to do the work that prevents them in the first place. Potholes are emblematic of a failed strategy.

How does he get to this conclusion? Data! Continue Reading »

Why invest in automation? The answer to that question is often to cut cost — a straight up move to replace labour with capital. That has the obvious implication that firms in high-wage locales like the US should be willing to invest heavily in fancy machinery while those in lower-wage countries like India should be more cautious in doing so. That may not always hold, however. As the Wall Street Journal tells it, there is one Indian industry that is investing heavily in automation and it’s not really about shaving costs. The industry in question is generic pharmaceuticals and the driving force behind the capital investments is maintaining high quality standards (India’s Drug Makers Move Toward Automation, Jun 5).

Despite an abundance of low-cost laborers in India, all of [Dr. Reddy's Laboratories'] plants are moving toward fully automating their production process “to avoid good manufacturing practice pitfalls from regulators,” said Samiran Das, head of Dr. Reddy’s generic drugs manufacturing.

In the past decade, India’s pharmaceutical companies have blossomed into multibillion-dollar companies that now account for 40% of the generic drugs sold in the U.S. Those companies, however, have come under increased scrutiny in recent years from the U.S. FDA, for manufacturing, testing and other safety issues that are often the result of human error.

To ensure that their products don’t get banned from the U.S.—the world’s biggest drug market—many companies that can afford it are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to automate. …

Mr. Venkatanaryan, the head of the Dr. Reddy’s Bachupally plant, says the drive toward automation is meant to make the manufacturing process “mistake-proof.”

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Restaurant reservations are back in the news. The Wall Street Journal had a story discussing two aspects of reservations — restaurants that offer tickets and sites that sell other people’s reservations (Ticket to Dine: The Restaurant Reservation Revolution, May 30). The first of these is an interesting trend if only because it so drastically changes the nature of running a fine dining establishment. Even with reservations, the number of people a restaurant serves in a night is random since they cannot guarantee that everyone will show up. Turns out, making people pay upfront does wonders for attendance.

“I’d been thinking about tickets for years,” said Nick Kokonas, a former derivatives trader who pioneered the approach, in 2011, at his Chicago restaurant Next—one of three ticketed spots he runs in the city with chef-partner Grant Achatz. At his tasting menu restaurants the ticket price covers the full cost of a meal—tax and tip included—with beverage pairing available as an optional add-on. But Mr. Kokonas has also begun experimenting with tickets in an à la carte setting, pre-charging $20 per seat at his cocktail bar the Aviary—a down-payment on the food and drink you’ll be consuming that night. “Our no-shows at the bar dropped from 14% to near zero,” he said. “If people buy tickets to a show, they go see the show.”

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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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Wearable computing is often talked up as the next big thing. So how hard can it be to build a smart watch? Pebble, an independent (i.e., not owned by an existing tech company) competitor had some significant delays as it moved from Kickstarter campaign to actual product. It essentially underestimated complications of sourcing materials and getting things built. But it doesn’t have to be so hard (Shanzhai: China’s Collaborative Electronics Design Ecosystem, The Atlantic, May 18).

A different story emerges in the burgeoning wearable electronics market of Southern China, one that is based on a rapid, flexible and open ecosystem called shanzhai 山寨.

Take, World Peace Industrial (WPI), a Taiwanese electronic sourcing company located in Shenzhen, as an example. The company’s application technology unit (ATU) spends millions annually to develop reference circuit boards, called gongban 公板 (“public board”). A gongban can be used by a variety of different companies, who either incorporate it in their products directly or build atop it as they please via modifications. ATU develops 130 gongbans annually in areas ranging from smart phones, tablets, smart watches, smart homes, and industrial controls—and distributes the designs for free. WPI then makes money by trading in the boards’ components.

“We call this shanzhai in Shenzhen. It’s a mass production artwork,” explains Lawrence Lin head of the Application Technology Unit at WPI. Thirty some companies in Shenzhen are shipping their own smart watches with gongban from ATU and gongmo (‘public case’) sourced from the massive shanzhai ecosystem, which consists of tens of thousands of companies that manufacture and distribute goods. …

In the emerging area of smart watches, WPI and other solution houses create gongban, which provide common electronic functions including Bluetooth connectivity to mobile phones, and sensors to measure the wearers’ movement, as well as monitor heart rate and other vital bodily statistics. These gongban are designed to fit into a variety of gongmo that are ready to be branded on order. The flexibility to mix and match gongban and gongmo enable companies to quickly put together their own smart watches with customized functions and styles for various niche markets. Today, customers of WPI ship close to 100,000 smart watches per month.

What do a gongban and a gongmo look like? Take a gander:

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When you thing of the auto industry, you likely focus on big players like Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Mercedes. Names like Magna International and Denso may not mean a whole lot to you. But you should know those names. They likely make more of your car than you realize. “Mega suppliers” like Magna and Denso have been growing for years and in the process have been sifting the balance of power in the industry (Age of mega supplier heralds danger for carmakers, Financial Times, May 18).

There are now 16 major car manufacturers that sell more than 1m vehicles a year. But those cars are built from parts supplied by just 10 major component makers – meaning that under the individually styled bodywork, cars are sharing more parts.

Whether a driver chooses to buy a BMW, an Audi or a Mercedes-Benz five-door saloon, the chances are high that the anti-lock brakes will be built by Continental, the battery will come from Johnson Controls, and Denso will have provided the exhaust

Bosch, the world’s largest automotive supplier by revenue, reckons that at least one of its parts is built into almost every new car sold anywhere in the world – regardless of brand, market, price point or geography.

The article goes on to note that the top ten suppliers capture 60% of the revenue generated by the top 100 suppliers.

Given this situation, two questions seem relevant. First, how did automakers find themselves in this situation? Second, what are the implications for how the industry functions? Continue Reading »

Shop on Amazon.com and you will find a lot of items sold by lots of different sellers. For many of those sellers, Amazon isn’t just handling acting as a store front; it is also handling the logistics of order fulfillment. Now suppose that Amazon has a particular product which both it and several third parties are selling out its warehouses. How should Amazon physically manage the inventory? Should it keep the inventory it is selling physically separate from that offered by third-party sellers? In many instances, Amazon chooses to do just the opposite, allowing for “stickerless, commingled inventory.” Here is an Amazon video explaining just what that means.

And here is how the Wall Street Journal explains the benefits of the program (Do You Know What’s Going in Your Amazon Shopping Cart?, May 11).

The system has enabled Amazon to make better use of its warehouse space and keep a wide variety of items in stock around the country. The idea is to give Amazon flexibility to ship certain products based on their proximity to customers, speeding delivery times. For third-party sellers, it saves them the trouble of having to label individual items sent to the Amazon warehouse.

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