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Posts Tagged ‘Manufacturing’

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.

(more…)

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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? (more…)

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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.

(more…)

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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).

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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).

(more…)

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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.

(more…)

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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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What’s the right mix of workers and machines in making cars? According to Bloomberg, Toyota has been re-thinking that question and moving to shift more work back to people (‘Gods’ Make Comeback at Toyota as Humans Steal Jobs From Robots, Apr 7).

Inside Toyota Motor Corp.’s oldest plant, there’s a corner where humans have taken over from robots in thwacking glowing lumps of metal into crankshafts. This is Mitsuru Kawai’s vision of the future.

“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said Kawai, a half century-long company veteran tapped by President Akio Toyoda to promote craftsmanship at Toyota’s plants. “When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.”

These gods, or Kami-sama in Japanese, are making a comeback at Toyota, the company that long set the pace for manufacturing prowess in the auto industry and beyond. Toyota’s next step forward is counter-intuitive in an age of automation: Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

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I have become increasingly taken with the question of what constitutes a good job. Various parts of operations in many industries have become automated over time and that trend will continue. But firms will still need people. Some production steps will be sufficiently nuanced or require too much dexterity that using a robot is (at least for now) impossible. Other setting like retail will favor resources who can move more or less seamlessly between restocking shelves to checking out customers. So what do these jobs look like? Unfortunately, the answer can be fairly grim.

The Atlantic has an article written by an ex-Politico reporter who lost his job and ended up (mostly out of desperation) working at sporting goods store (My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor, Mar 11) and found the experience rather dehumanizing.

Of course, I had no idea what a modern retail job demanded. I didn’t realize the stamina that would be necessary, the extra, unpaid duties that would be tacked on, or the required disregard for one’s own self-esteem. I had landed in an alien environment obsessed with theft, where sitting down is all but forbidden, and loyalty is a one-sided proposition. For a paycheck that barely covered my expenses, I’d relinquish my privacy, making myself subject to constant searches.

“If you go outside or leave the store on your break, me or another manager have to look in your backpack and see the bottom,” Stretch explained. “And winter’s coming—if you’re wearing a hoodie or a big jacket, we’ll just have to pat you down. It’s pretty simple.”

When he outlined that particular requirement, my civil-rights brain—the one that was outraged at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy and wounded from being stopped by police because of my skin color—was furious. …

I’m not sure why—perhaps out of middle-class disbelief or maybe a reporter’s curiosity—I pressed the issue. Seriously: I have to get searched? Even if I’m just going across the street for a soda, with no more than lint in my pockets? Even if you don’t think I stole anything?

Stretch shrugged, unconcerned. Clearly he’d been living with this one for a while.

“Yeah, it’s pretty simple. Just get me or one of the other managers to pat you down before you leave.” (more…)

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What exactly constitutes manufacturing? There are some settings that are very clear. If you work at an assembly plant building cars, you are in manufacturing. If you work at a university that educates students and produces research, then you ain’t. But there are other situations that are not as clean cut. Check out this example from the Wall Street Journal (U.S. Agencies Consider Redefining Manufacturing, Mar 14).

“If someone asks me at a party, I say we make binoculars,” said the president of Carson Optical Inc., a small company tucked in an industrial park in this New York City suburb, adding, “It’s a little bit more vague than saying we manufacture them.” …

A stroll through Carson Optical shows why companies like these can be hard to label. Mr. Cameron, a former banker, started the firm 23 years ago after a stint working in Asia, where he saw the potential to import optical goods from Japan.

But the firm today has evolved far beyond just importing the things that others create. In a conference room near the front, the walls are lined with products Carson’s three-person engineering team has designed, including a hand-held microscope used by medical-marijuana growers to study their plants and an anti-reflective lens device that can be clamped onto binoculars and gun sights.

Carson holds 94 U.S. and overseas patents. The company closely monitors how its goods are made, in some cases buying materials needed to make them and sending them to the factories in Asia.

And the evolution continues. Mr. Cameron is shopping for his first computer-guided production machine and is preparing to move to a bigger nearby building to accommodate his growing design and development operation. He plans to use the new machine to make better prototypes but doesn’t rule out someday making some of his own goods.

So is this manufacturing? On the one hand, they are not doing the nitty-gritty tasks of molding parts or fastening them together. On the other, they are doing most of the high value work like product design as well as sourcing material and setting quality standards. Carson Optical may fail a Potter Stewart I-know-it-when-I-see-it test, but it is holding onto the parts of modern manufacturing that create meaningful value.

Why does this matter? Because the federal government is reconsidering how to define manufacturing and more specifically wrestling with the likes of Carson Optical. (more…)

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