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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. Continue Reading »

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? Continue Reading »

The West Port labor strife is now over but issues remain. There are still dozens of ships waiting for their turn at Southern California ports and there are numerous bottlenecks in getting containers off ships and to their destinations. The Wall Street Journal has had a couple of recent articles dealing with how these logistical disruptions have affected supply chains as well as how the ports might possibly run better.

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First up is how the ports customers are reacting (Ports Gridlock Reshapes the Supply Chain, Mar 5). The West Coast doesn’t have a monopoly on US ports, of course; they are just the most convenient to Asia. However, as the graphic above demonstrates, shipping to the East or Gulf Coasts are an options if you are willing to wait a bit longer to get your goods. Currently, the West Coast handles about half of US cargo shipments but, according to an executive of the Port of Los Angeles, a third of their volume is “purely discretionary” in the sense that it could go to another port.  Continue Reading »

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. Continue Reading »

When you call some firm’s customer service number, do you really care whom you talk to? I mean, beyond basic competence in addressing your request or walking through how to solve a problem, do you really care? Would it matter if there were some way of matching you with a better agent? “Better” here is not about skill level, per se, but rather about someone who matches your personality type. That is, you and I may call with the exact same issue but have different agents recommend as best for each of us based on just how we behave on the phone.

This is the kind of service offered by a Chicago-based firm called Mattersight, which has been featured in recent articles in both Crain’s Chicago Business (Why you might not hate calling customer service next time, Feb 12) and InformationWeek (Big Data: Matching Personalities In The Call Center, Feb 17). Here is how Crain’s describes what they do:

Your call is automatically routed to a like-minded agent who’s been matched to you according to factors such as communication style and personality type. It sounds a little like science fiction, but it works. Clients such as pharmacist CVS Health and online insurers Progressive and Esurance (an Allstate subsidiary) say Mattersight’s software speeds up calls, boosts sales or raises customer satisfaction by 10 percent or more. …

Mattersight’s product, based on more than 10 million algorithms developed by an in-house team of behavioral scientists, is overseen by David Gustafson, Mattersight’s product chief and executive vice president. The algorithms are if-then statements that analyze callers according to speech patterns and cadence in order to gauge their personality type and mood and route them toward a simpatico customer-service rep.

People’s speech patterns constitute “an emotional syntax,” says Gustafson, 37, one that can quickly demonstrate whether a caller “is someone who values order and logic, or if they’re fun, spontaneous and creative.” The best customer service reps are adept at working with all personality groups but still do better with one type or another; Mattersight’s tech aims to play to that strong suit as often as possible.

Continue Reading »

Check out these number from the Wall Street Journal (How to Make Surgery Safer, Feb 16).

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A little disconcerting, eh? Now there are obviously a lot of surgeries taking place every day in the US, so on a percentage basis having just 20 procedure in which the surgeon operates on the wrong site is very low. Still, that is not very helpful t the person who has a stitches on the wrong side of their body.

So what can be done to make surgery safer and more reliable? Continue Reading »

What?! No Dessert?

I have a sweet tooth. I am rarely too full to pass on dessert. However, an article in Washingtonian magazine suggests that restaurants (at least those in metro DC) may inadvertently be saving people like me from ourselves by offering less attractive options for dessert or even foregoing offering dessert all together (Why DC Restaurants No Longer Care About Desserts, Feb 4). The interesting part of this is that the retreat from dessert is largely driven by economic and operational concerns.

In the post-crash economy, pastry chefs are no longer seen as essential employees but as pricey appendages.

“It’s not just saving the salary,” one restaurant owner told me. “It’s saving the space, too. To have a good pastry program, you need a designated area of the kitchen, you need a place to store the ingredients. The 10,000-square-foot restaurant has become the 7,000-square-foot restaurant. Everything’s smaller now. There isn’t the space.”

More and more, the task falls to chefs and line cooks who, lacking any background in baking, have contrived to fill their menus with simple, quick-fix solutions. Puddings, custards, panna cotta (an Italian term for what is essentially Jell-O made with cream) don’t require a lot of effort or expense; all can be made in the morning and stashed in the walk-in refrigerator.

Some restaurants have given up entirely. “More restaurants than you would think” are outsourcing their sweets to independent bakers, says Mark Bucher, who owns Medium Rare, with locations in Cleveland Park and Barracks Row. Bucher’s is among them. “You give them your recipes and they’ll make them for you. That way you can still say that they’re your desserts.”

Continue Reading »

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