Mar 06 2015

Robots Improve Productivity – But at what Cost?

Technology advances have long had a history of controversy. Going all the way back to the invention of the steam engine, technology innovation has changed the way we live, the way we work, and what skills are sought after in labor markets.    Innovation has dramatically improved our standard of living, but fear of change and the possible impact on the labor market naturally creates resistance amongst workers and economists.

One example of a technology transformation we are experiencing first hand is the robotics revolution.  The revolution started in the early 1960s when the first Unimate robots were installed to help General Motors ramp up its production volume. Today, all automakers rely heavily on robotics and automation to increase volume, improve quality, and reduce costs.

From a philosophical or social perspective, one of the concerns of technology innovation is the displacement of jobs. Where will people work, if their jobs are now done by machines? Timothy Aeppel, an Editor with The Wall Street Journal, recently wrote an article on this topic where he interviewed economist Erik Brynjolfsson in the WSJ article, “What Clever Robots Mean for Jobs.”

Historically, academia has postulated that increasing levels of automation have in fact generated more jobs. From steam engines to robotic welders and ATMs, technology has long displaced humans — but has always created new, often higher-skill jobs in its wake. The challenge, however, is that while the transition is in process, it is often difficult to see or understand the “big picture.” And, the new jobs created in the wake of a technology advance are often held by different people with a different skillset than those who were displaced.

Mr. Brynjolfsson thinks something has changed, and that this general premise may now be at a tipping point such that the growth of new jobs may not occur. He explains that “It’s gotten easier to substitute machines for many kinds of labor. We should be able to have a lot more wealth with less labor.  But, it could happen that there are people who want to work but can’t.” Mr. Brynjolfsson is focused on some of the limited advances now being accomplished with increasingly sophisticated robots.

Here is a video showing what Amazon is doing to help automate and improve efficiency in their warehouses, with a sophisticated team of 3,000 Kiva robots:



Future Predictions

Forecast growth of robotics industryAccording to the WSJ article, Gartner Inc., the technology research firm, has predicted a third of all jobs will be lost to automation within a decade. And within two decades, economists at Oxford University forecast nearly half of the current jobs will be performed with machine technology.

MIT economist David Autor’s recently completed research suggests automation is increasingly commandeering middle-class work, such as performed by clerks or bookkeepers, while creating jobs at either the high- or low-end of the market. He suggests that this is a reason why the labor market has polarized and wages have stagnated over the past 15 years. “The concern among economists shouldn’t be machines soon replacing humans. The real problem I see with automation is that it’s contributed to growing inequality.”

Regardless of how “good” or “bad” our future of robotics and automation might be – in our lives and on the shop floor – one thing appears certain. The appetite for robot purchases appears to be strong. According to the International Federation of Robots, as quoted in the WSJ article referenced above, future industrial robot installations world-wide could be nearly 300,000 by the end of the decade – a figure nearly double what is currently active. See the chart at right.

This anticipated growth is fueling (or is a consequence of) the anticipated growth of the Internet of Things, Industrial Internet of Things, Industrie 4.0, Smart Factory, or whatever other term you call it. Will this digital manufacturing transformation impact our lives, our career paths and what jobs are needed in the future? Absolutely! Will there be a net increase or decrease? Who knows?

If history is any predictor of our future, I suspect that in the end our lives will be enriched in some ways, and in other ways, we’ll miss the “good old days.” One thing is likely for certain: We’ll all have good stories to tell our grandchildren, which might start with “Do you remember when you used to drive your own car?”


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Mar 04 2015

Can Manufacturers Do Something About the Weather?

can manufacturers control weather?Manufacturing schedules can be easy to maintain when the flow of supplies is predictable and steady. It’s when disruptions occur that Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) systems earn their keep.

We need look no further than the weather to find a perfect example of this challenge. Whether or not you believe man-made global warming is real, it’s a topic that has been top-of-mind over the past couple of years. Whatever the cause, local weather events are certainly becoming more and more extreme, to the point of disrupting manufacturing operations.

In the United States, we’ve seen two dramatic examples of this in the past year. The West Coast drought, the worst in more than a century, has forced businesses to change their practices as they work around a severe water shortage. And on the East Coast, record snow fall (more than 7 feet in three weeks) has disrupted business operations as travel and commerce have slowed to a halt for days at a time.

Personally, I am experiencing this extreme, as a resident of the Boston metropolitan area. Just look at this photo to see what I am now dealing with! :)

Of course, an enterprise MOM system can’t do anything about the weather, but it can help manufacturers cope with the consequences.

Respond Faster to Adversity

With a sufficiently advanced and automated system of controlling manufacturing execution and visibility into the supply chain, manufacturers can minimize the negative impact of these events. Take the recent snow falls in New England, for example. There’s not much that can be done about closed roadways and workers unable to get to their jobs. But an enterprise MOM system could at least let management assess the impact of lost days and quickly adjust schedules in an optimum way, by finding suppliers who are able to deliver or by shifting operations to another plant until nature has settled down again.

Meanwhile, what does the non-MOM enterprise do? If the delays are only going to last for a few days, it may not be worth attempting to adjust. After all, by the time the logistics are sorted out, the roads will be open again and it’s back to business as usual. So for these companies, the direct impact in terms of delays and lost business can be twice as severe as for the more advanced manufacturer.

Does this really matter? It’s only a winter storm, right? Well, New England has already had several days of lost business this year, and the winter isn’t over yet. And in California, the drought rages on with no end in sight.

Of course I’m not suggesting that enterprises should modernize their operations just for the weather. There are plenty of other compelling reasons to invest in supply chain visibility and manufacturing agility. But, should you make the investment, the next time one of these weather surprises comes up, you will be far better suited to adapt.

As climate change continues to create more extreme weather events, it becomes yet another argument in favor of modernizing operations management—and perhaps doing it before any more business slips away in a flurry of epic snow storms!


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Feb 27 2015

Smart-Pull Gaining Traction in Lean Manufacturing

Ebara uses smart-pull as part of Lean manufacturing programBack in June of 2013 we introduced the concept of “Smart-Pull in Lean Manufacturing” to this blog, Manufacturing Transformation. Of course, this topic has existed for quite some time before, but as is the case with new concepts, the technology had not quite caught up with the concept.

This notion is actually quite radical if you are a Lean “purist.” Adding an IT infrastructure to your Lean operations could be argued as contrary to removing waste from operations. But, the power of adding intelligence into a process such that inventory replenishment can be automatically triggered – at just the right time and place – does appear to be raising interest with manufacturers.

As was referenced in James Mok’s earlier article, this new model of “Smart-Pull” describes a mechanism that individuals can transform an institution through their interactions with knowledge flows. While this is in accordance with Lean thinking, the method is beyond the scope of any current literature on Lean methodology. In the context of manufacturing operations, this means all resources including operators, engineers, machines, suppliers, materials, repair parts and others are now given a new level of capability to self-organize and self-improve.

Fast forward to today, nearly two years later, and we have a case study to help validate this concept, and the benefits that can truly be made possible with such an approach.

Success Story

Ebara, a leading Japanese manufacturer of pumps and fluid machinery, has implemented a Dassault Systèmes’ Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) solution to help improve inventory accuracy and visibility. The company will use the solution to employ Smart-Pull production processes to reduce lead times and inventory while improving efficiency.

Their MOM solution will unify a sequence of disparate inventory, production and delivery processes, initially at Ebara’s Fujisawa plant in Japan, with the aim of improving visibility and control of its production processes.

Ebara is benefiting from a wide range of Pull type production processes, from production, supplier and inbound order, to inventory and outbound. The solution also provides real-time visibility to inventory management, with links to enterprise resource planning (ERP), and added mobility access and visibility to production sites using handheld devices.


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Feb 25 2015

5 Best Practices for Choosing Global Suppliers

global_supply_chain_best-practicesExpanding your business to keep up with supply and demand is a good thing. As your business grows and requires more resources, it’s silly to assume you won’t need to source global vendors. But as businesspeople all over the world know, managing supply channels in a global economy has its opportunities as well as its pitfalls and, from day one, operations management must be educated on mitigating risks.

Once your supply chain goes international, there are regulations, constraints and best practices that will help keep operations running smoothly everywhere.

1. Choose Wisely

The decision of which supplier to use should not be taken lightly, as manufacturing suppliers who are not true to quality or delivery promises can kill your productivity. Choosing the right supplier is a multi-goal, multi-criteria issue that is spread over many departments. Typically, the decision making construct doesn’t have specific outcomes; this is called a fuzzy environment. Knowing you need your widget to have specific costs, dimensions and delivery locations would be a crisp decision setting. Most companies have flexibility in some of its parameters so that the selection process becomes more difficult. There are newly established computer programs using hierarchical analytic processes that will help in identifying the best manufacturing suppliers, even in a fuzzy environment.

2. Best Working Conditions

Low wages, child labor and hazardous working conditions in a global market can can be more problematic than beneficial. Business consultants are recommending that manufacturing companies look at more than simple quality compliance when analyzing a supplier’s viability. Thoroughly review and analyze the work structure, average pay structure and employee satisfaction at the company before making a final decision.

3. Importance Of Product Safety

Although product safety and security measures are always a concern in manufacturing, our growing global economy has made these factors increasingly important on a worldwide scale. Though international suppliers may be able to promise a lower price point, they come at a risk of increased local and national restrictions. Product safety must be defined on a worldwide scale. As an example, the sealant supplier Apple Rubber has quality compliance from both U.S. governmental departments and European organizations, making them eligible to deliver globally without risk of regulatory issues.

4. Social Responsibility

Say one of your suppliers goes rogue, manufacturing ceases and the decision processes start new. Your company will be linked to your supplier’s production, which includes its socially responsible branding. When shopping for suppliers, a 2010 issue of the Journal of Supply Chain Management advises having a mind for long-term operation as well as identifying specific components of social responsibility and making sure the suppliers are contractually bound to follow them. Breach of these requirements needs to be just as important as a violation of performance, especially when it comes to social responsibility, as the ramifications of your supply chain organizations can reach into your company’s bottom line.

5. Third Party Labor

Hiring third-party labor contractors can be a cost-saving resource or it can also be a source of unscrupulous labor practices. It’s challenging to track third party labor contractors in a global economy, so like sustainability, the use of labor contractors needs to be contractually enforced. Make sure that there is specific language to vet recruitment organizations outside of the vendor company. Likewise, add criteria for third party employment. Since many countries, including some places in the United States, use informal hiring practices, legal recourse is a must.

Some of the points listed above might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many businesses are hit with fines, fees and bad media because they failed to consider certain factors. Look at all of the information and decide what makes the most sense for the long-term future of your company.

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Feb 20 2015

How Advancements in Manufacturing Have (Positively) Impacted Safety

safety_manufacturing_operationsAdvances in manufacturing technology and processes are having a profound impact on every phase of traditional manufacturing, including design, execution, process control, and safety measures used around the globe. These are positive advances that can produce better products while creating less waste, align the supply chain more closely with demand, and keep employees safer than they have ever been.

Digital Manufacturing Advances

Pure digital manufacturing involves the development of prototypes, the planning, and the customizing of production processes using virtual techniques that are entirely automated, or nearly so. Automated control ensures that production runs generate only the quantity of product desired, without overruns, so the manufacturing process is leaner and more responsive to actual demand. This approach supports a build-to-order production strategy, rather than a build-to-stock strategy.

Product generally travels through this kind of build process at a quicker rate, because unnecessary steps have been designed out, which in turn allows goods to reach the consumer in a more timely fashion. From a safety perspective, automated design methods contribute to a safer work environment through a refinement of the process and greater virtual testing that can be accomplished to check ergonomics, physical requirements as well as other factors that can lead to injury if not properly evaluated.

Global Manufacturing Advances

Global manufacturing is undergoing considerable transformation, which has resulted in significant cutting-edge advances for industry. Advances have occurred in the form of collaborative engineering of automation software, cloud-enabled services on physically remote platforms, and collaborative architectural design. The practical uses of such technology are currently being tested and evaluated in several locations such as RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

At RMIT, a global laboratory has been set up to link industrial entities to universities at locations around the world. This connectivity was established to provide a collaborative space for experimental design and testing of physical systems managed by automated means. An initial test was arranged in 2013 to connect remote automated equipment, operators, testers, software developers and researchers to ensure that proper control would be maintained. And, most importantly, this new level of collaboration sought to unlock new ways to approach safety issues – helping to keep our manufacturing work environments as safe as ever!

With the tremendous success of that initial test, the network of partners in the program has been broadened as more companies seek to obtain the benefits of this new manufacturing technology. As this ultra-modern approach rolls out to more large companies, it is anticipated that the “islands” in the manufacturing stream will grow fewer. More inter-connectedness between multiple organizations within and external to companies offers the opportunity for greater sharing of safety best practices. In short, the manufacturing process is becoming much more collaborative and collective.

Impacts on Safety

Each of these activities is having a huge impact on safety and safety training in the advanced workplace of today. With parts of the build process handled by automation, there are fewer actual persons involved on assembly lines and workstations, so many of the safety concerns from assembly are anticipated to be reduced or eliminated.

Another very noticeable impact has been in the creation of an entirely new position in companies that make use of digital and or global manufacturing methods – the safety engineer. This person is charged with having an intimate knowledge of several engineering disciplines, for instance controls, mechanics, and electronics. They must also have a deep understanding of safety requirements and regulations. Responsibilities include the creation of a harmonious connection between cutting edge technology, design requirements, and necessary safety practices.

Safety methods and training for those specific safety methods will now have to take on a greater awareness – of remote locations, and of the operations personnel involved in those remote processes. It will not be enough to practice good safety locally, because the process will no longer be entirely local. This greater awareness should be seen as a very good thing though, because after all, the key to safety in the workplace is having the awareness of good safety practices in the first place.


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