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Archive for the ‘Manufacturing’ Category

Much like Tom T. Hall, I like beer. And much like other industries, brewers have had to adjust as consumers habits and tastes have changed as bars and restaurants closed. As the Wall Street Journal reported a few weeks ago, this has largely meant a shift from smaller craft beers to the watery, American lagers your grandfather drank (Coronavirus Brings Beer Drinkers Back to Bud Light, May 18).

Beer drinkers have turned to box stores and grocery stores, and they are buying beer in 24- and 30-packs so they can make fewer trips. Shoppers are experimenting less, gravitating to brands they trust and looking for healthier, lower-calorie beers. Some people, out of work or watching their budgets, are trading down to cheaper options. And distributors and retailers, looking to simplify their supply chain, are trimming the number of products they carry.

All of those factors are hurting small craft brewers, which make most of their sales in their own tap rooms. Many craft beer brands aren’t distributed in retail stores. For most craft breweries, on-site sales were down by more than 70% in early April, and sales of craft beer to bars and restaurants had evaporated, according to a survey by the Brewers Association, an industry group.

So craft brewers are in many ways like lots of other firms during the pandemic. They had a business model built around sending kegs out to bars and when that demand dried up, they had limited ability to switch to other channels. Even if they could switch to bottling beer, they did not necessarily have the distributional muscle to get their beer into supermarkets and convenience stores.

But that also raises the question about what happens to the kegs. It turns out the breweries own the kegs. When a keg leaves your local craft brewer for a bar, it is supposed to go back to the brewery eventually. This video from Brewbound (a trade publication covering “the beer space“) gives a bit of background.

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The supply disruptions affecting some seemingly basic products have been fairly sustained. While it is now easier than it was at the start of the lockdown to fine, say, toilet paper and tissues. Other items continue to be hard to come by. Articles are regularly appearing offering one explanation or another for why [fill in the blank] still isn’t on the shelf.

Take, for example, disinfectant wipes. These are basically on every list of how to be safe during the pandemic. That led to a burst of buying in February and March and the likes of Clorox and Lysol are still trying to catch up. One consideration here is that in contrast to items like toilet paper wipes were not in every pantry before the crisis hit and they also aren’t that easy to make (Why Clorox Wipes Are Still So Hard to Find, Wall Street Journal, May 7).

Disinfectant wipes can’t be made as readily as hand sanitizer. The process combines fabric wipes with the cleaning solution, and the Environmental Protection Agency has in place criteria for cleaners to be considered effective for use against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

And unlike toilet paper, which is ubiquitous in homes and businesses, only about half of American households stocked disinfectant wipes before the pandemic, Clorox’s Mr. Jacobsen said. That led to an even more dramatic demand spike as current wipe users consumed a much higher volume while new buyers sought them out.

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This is, of course, the weekend of the Super Bowl. While other business sections might focus on advertisements, the Chicago Tribune takes a hometown angle and talks pigskin — or more accurately cowhides since that’s what footballs are, in fact, made of (Chicago’s in the Super Bowl: Local firms team up to make big game’s football, Feb 2). The footballs are made by Wilson, which is based in Chicago, but the balls are made at a factory in Ohio. The leather, however, all comes from Horween Leather which has processed hides in Chicago for over 100 years.

Here’s a description of just what they do for the leather:

For 24 hours, hides are treated with an acid solution that removes the hair. To make leather used in sporting goods, hides get a first round of tanning in large drums where fats and oils are stripped away and chrome is added to strengthen the material.

Employees then take the “wet blue” hides — named for their pre-dyed tint — and assess quality. Every hide will get another round of tanning, but the process depends on the final product. Football leather emerges with a grippable tackiness — part of the reason Nick Horween is irked when announcers blame flubbed passes on slippery balls.

Bone-colored football leather is dried in an oven on the tannery’s top floor, glued to glass plates to keep it from shrinking. A pebblelike texture — Wilson’s pattern includes tiny W’s — is stamped on with heated steel plates. The leather then is sprayed with dye until it’s that recognizable reddish-brown hue.

The whole article is worth checking out and features a video of the Horween plant.

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What should modern manufacturing look like?

There’s a lot of ways of thinking about that but I think that few would argue that information should be exchanged digitally. In a world in which products are designed and optimized in a computer, it is hard to see why diagrams and blueprints should  have to be printed out. Except as Marketplace reports, not everyone is necessarily ready for a digital world (Legacy equipment still hinders digital manufacturing, Jan 28).

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The last few years have been rather rough on Takata. Once the firm could accurately have been described as a fairly anonymous auto parts supplier. Your car may have contained some components made by Takata, but you were likely unaware of just what they were. That has changed rather significantly has it has come to light that the firm has produced a large number of defective airbags. Defective in the sense that they explode and send shrapnel into the car as opposed to inflating. To date, numerous automakers have recalled over 24 million vehicles in the US. To put that number in perspective, total car sales in the US set a record at 17.5 million last year.

As you might expect, the firm has been involved in the requisite activities of apologizing and ass-covering. As part of the latter, they commissioned a committee led by a former transportation secretary to review how the firm has managed. The resulting report doesn’t pick a particularly nice picture (Takata Lacks Processes for Tackling Air-Bag Defects, Panel Says, Wall St. Journal, Feb 2).

Takata Corp., the supplier behind defective air bags in millions of recalled vehicles, lacks clear processes for tackling potential safety defects and needs improved manufacturing methods, an outside panel the company commissioned found.

Takata employees tasked with raising safety concerns don’t have well-defined roles and rely on reports from auto makers about quality problems instead of ferreting out problems themselves, according to the report from the panel led by Samuel Skinner, the former transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

The report found Takata lacked its own program for spotting defects in air bags once they’re installed in vehicles that now typically stay on U.S. roads for more than a decade.

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When you think about United Parcel Service (if you ever do), you like think about the big brown truck that brings boxes to your house. But UPS does much more than deliver e-commerce purchases to residential addresses. They also have a significant business handling supply chain logistics. That business is potentially threatened by the evolving technology of additive manufacturing. Who needs a logistic purveyor when parts and components can be reduced to a file, sent around the world, and then printed at its point of use?

That concern has led UPS to experiment with 3D printing, investing in a start up and setting up a facility at UPS’s hub in Louisville. They currently have 100 printers and are planing to to expand to 900 (UPS Tests a 3-D Printing Service, Wall Street Journal, Sep 18). Just what are they doing with these printers?

UPS expects more companies will migrate some production to 3-D printing from traditional manufacturing on an aggressive growth curve, according to Rimas Kapeskas, head of UPS’s strategic enterprise fund. And UPS is also talking with customers about taking on a bigger role as a light manufacturer using 3-D printers. …

Late last month, the operation received an order for 40 mounting brackets for paper towel dispensers from a division of Georgia-Pacific LLC that makes dispensers, Dixie cups and cutlery. CloudDDM printed the mounts and UPS shipped them to a Georgia-Pacific engineer by the next morning. The brackets were slated for a month-long “stress test,” said Michael Dunn, senior vice president of innovation development for Georgia-Pacific.

Whirlpool turned to the operation recently when its own 3-D printers were all occupied. The maker of Maytag and KitchenAid products uses the printing method for prototypes of items like trays for refrigerators and venting systems for dryers, as a way to test parts on smaller scale.

The article also reports that UPS has used the service itself to produce parts for its fleet of planes. (more…)

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Many, many years ago, I began collecting music. By the time I was in college, I had several crates of records that meant helping me move was a good way to hurt your back. I finally broke down and switched to CDs when the Replacement’s All Shook Down was released only as a CD. Of course, now CDs have given way to files and streaming while my old LPs gather dust in the basement. But vinyl records are making a comeback — they now account for 9% of sales for music sold in a physical form. Last year that amounted to 13 million records — the highest total in 25 years — which has led to some interesting production issues (Vinyl LP Frenzy Brings Record-Pressing Machines Back to Life, New York Times, Sep 14).

Independent Record Pressing is an attempt to solve one of the riddles of today’s music industry: how to capitalize on the popularity of vinyl records when the machines that make them are decades old, and often require delicate and expensive maintenance. The six presses at this new 20,000-square-foot plant, for example, date to the 1970s. …

But the few dozen plants around the world that press the records have strained to keep up with the exploding demand, resulting in long delays and other production problems, executives and industry observers say. It is now common for plants to take up to six months to turn around a vinyl order — an eternity in an age when listeners are used to getting music online instantly.

Here’s a video that goes with the article.

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The vicissitudes of American manufacturing has been a long running topic on this blog. But whether one focuses on firms that have always kept their production in North America or those that have reshored manufacturing, there is the question of whether China or other Asian countries are going down without a fight. A recent article in The Economist suggests that manufacturing in Asia in general and in China in particular is going to be around for a long, long while (A tightening grip, Mar 14).

First, one has to recognize that the growth in Asian manufacturing over the last 20-plus yeas has been spectacular. Check out this graphic.

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As the article notes, these numbers get a little more extreme if one looks at “intermediate inputs,” doohickeys like displays and circuit boards that go into finished products that may be assembled elsewhere. (more…)

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Fast Company named American Giant one of its most innovative companies of 2015 (American Giant Guns For Gap By Doubling Down On The USA, March 2015). American Giant is purveyor of T-shirts, sweatshirts, and (most famously) hoodies. We have posted about them several times before. Part of American Giant’s pitch is that they make everything in, well, America. They cut and sew all of their items in facilities in California and North Carolina. This TechCrunch video offers a tour of their Brisbane, CA, facility.

Now one of the challenges of producing sweatshirts in the US instead of overseas is the increased labor cost. Check out this graphic from the New York Times (U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People, Sep 19, 2013)

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Assembling garments in the US roughly triples the labor costs. These are partially offset by lower duties and logistic costs, but they remain the primary reason why a US-made costs about 20% more than an Asian one.

But what can be done to make an American sewer more productive to reduce the labor cost gap? (more…)

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Have you ever thought about how drugs get made? Not your Walter-White kind of drugs but proper ethical pharmaceuticals. As the Wall Street Journal tells it, major players in the industry like Novartis and Johnson & Johnson are taking new approach to producing drugs (Drug Making Breaks Away From Its Old Ways, Feb 8).

For decades, drug makers have used cutting-edge science to discover medicines but have manufactured them using techniques dating to the days of the steam engine. …

Under the new approach, raw materials are fed into a single, continuously running process. Many other industries adopted such a “continuous-manufacturing” approach years ago, because quality can be checked without interrupting production—with weeks shaved off production times and operating expenses cut by as much as 50%.

Until recently, pharmaceutical companies have been stuck making drugs the old-fashioned way, mixing ingredients in large vats and in separate steps, often at separate plants and with no way to check for quality until after each step is finished. Any desire to modernize was partly blunted, industry officials say, by the high margins netted on the industry’s string of billion-dollar-selling drugs.

To give you an idea of the scope of what is happening, the article reports that J&J is aiming to have 70% of its highest volume products produced under a continuous-manufacturing approach within eight years. (more…)

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