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Posts Tagged ‘Manufacturing’

Have you ever ordered a couch or arm-chair and waited an interminable amount of time for delivery? The usual reason why getting upholstered furniture often takes forever is the fabric. From the manufacturer’s point of view, the fabric is expensive, which would be tolerable if one could count on it moving through the process quickly. However, in the furniture world, you can’t count on that. Above a certain price point, nearly every manufacturer competes on offering lots of variety. Once you pick out a couch that’s the right size and sufficiently comfy, you get handed a book of fabric samples with literally hundreds of choices. Some — indeed, most — of those options are destined to be low runners, rarely chosen options that will appeal to only a very few customers. That creates problems for the manufacturer. Holding all of those options in inventory may just be too costly. A manufacturer may hold some of the more popular variants in inventory, but for the more esoteric choices, they will wait to order the fabric after getting an order for a couch.

But what if you could print the desired pattern for the couch on site?

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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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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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IKEA has big growth plans. According to the Wall Street Journal, it aims to increase its revenue by €50 billion by 2020 — 74% higher than its 2014 revenue (IKEA Can’t Stop Obsessing About Its Packaging, Jun 17). Part of that growth is going to come from expanding into new markets, some may come from new formats, but a lot of it has to come from selling more stuff through existing stores. And that is going to require finding ways to cut prices to move more volume.

That’s where design comes in. IKEA is reviewing products in order to find ways to reduce their production and — importantly — their distribution costs. As this graphic demonstrates, this is pretty much a war on air.

BT-AC519A_IKEA_16U_20150616174511

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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.

20150314_BBC958

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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