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Factory of the Future

We return again to the growing importance of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3-D printing, as its impact upon our country’s industrial base continues to expand.

3-D printing will prove to be one of those “manufacturing revolutions” that, like others before, take time to be transformed – and transformational.  As The Economist notes in a recent (7-1-17) article on the matter, way back in 1733 a fellow by the name of John Kay, a British weaver, invented the “flying shuttle” which allowed for the production of wider pieces of cloth than previously possible.  Because it could be mechanized, it was one of those innovations that displaced workers and gradually paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.  In the early 1900s Ransom Olds came up with the idea of an assembly line to speed up production of the Olds Curved Dash – a decade ahead of Henry Ford.

Fast forward to the 1980s and Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System had a similarly profound effect on modern automotive production, with its “curious methods,” (to quote The Economist), like just-in-time parts delivery and continuous material flow procedures that presaged today’s lean thinking.

In 1983, a fellow named Chuck Hull invented something called stereo lithography.  He’s the founder of 3D Systems, a producer of 3D printers.  We’ve written of these machines’ capabilities before.  They allow a product to be designed CAD-like on a computer screen, and then “printed” as solid objects by building up successive layers of material.  Hull’s invention is just one of many approaches to additive manufacturing.

3D print technology has become popular for producing one-off prototypes since users can tweak their software to create new prototypes, rather than fuss with expensive tooling on the shop floor.  3D printing has proven great at making lightweight, complex shapes in high-value products like planes and autos.  It’s worth noting that GE has spent $1.5 billion on the technology to make jet parts.

To date, 3D printing has been ideal for low-volume production, but less for high-volume, where the technology has been deemed too slow to compete at higher volumes.  Except that’s going to change too.

Recently, shoe manufacturer Adidas has started to use a form of 3D printing called “digital light synthesis” to produce shoe soles, pulling them fully formed from a vat of liquid polymer, note the authors.  Adidas plans to use the technology in two highly-automated new factories to bring a million pairs of shoes to market annually.  So much for low-volume production.

Metal printing is also being affected.   A new technique called “bound-metal deposition” can build metal objects at a rate of 500 cubic inches per hour, compared to the 1 or 2 cubic inches using a typical laser-based metal printer today.

The rise of this technology is only a matter of time.  With increasing wage pressures even in China, the demand from factories is already there.  3D printing is spreading to production lines around the world.  As global supply chains shorten, additive printing a la 3D will be used to customize and tailor a range of products to local tastes and customer demands.  And Mr. Hull and others like him are likely to get a lot better known in the not too distant future.

 

By 2020 the U.S will overtake China to earn the top spot for the most competitive nation in the world.  At least, that’s according to predictions from Industry Week, whose stated mission is “advancing the business of manufacturing.”

According to Deloitte and the U.S. Council on Competitiveness this is due largely to America’s investments “in research, technology and innovation.”  “Manufacturing competitiveness, increasingly propelled by advanced technologies, is converging the digital and physical worlds, within and beyond the factory to both customers and suppliers, creating a highly responsive, innovative, and competitive global manufacturing landscape,” says Craig Giffi, co-author of the report.

Last year, Industry Week ranked their predictions of who would be the top manufacturing nations in their 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index, noting that the top 11 will remain consistent through 2020 though some will trade places in the rankings.  Their listing showed the following global leaders in manufacturing by 2020:

  1. United States – Research, technology and innovation. Not to mention, access to capital.
  2. China – But of course, although slipping to number 2.
  3. Germany – Industrial production, research & development… a growing lead in advanced mfg.
  4. Japan – Manufacturing is almost 20% of Japan’s GDP… from autos to aviation
  5. India – Engineering, software, lots of factory workers gave rise to a jump from #11
  6. South Korea – Biopharmaceuticals are a major contributor… and then there’s Samsung
  7. Mexico – Electronics manufacturing is stronger than ever
  8. Taiwan – Optoelectronics (think: flat screens) and hi def color displays
  9. Canada – Montreal is the world’s 4th leading center for aerospace manufacturing
  10. Singapore – Big in biomedical sciences

It’s a bold prediction, and to make it happen will require continued innovation here in the U.S., along with advanced manufacturing, access to broad capital markets, access to world trade markets, and the continued research and developments efforts that have long ensured America’s place in the top tier of global manufacturing.

But others are not standing still, and nothing is ever assured.

Perils in the Cloud

Recently, another reseller (and good friend) who uses a trusted third-party to host about a dozen of their accounting software clients mentioned that most of those clients’ systems were down — for the third time in about as many months, including two in the past couple of weeks.  Down as in, they-can’t-do-business down.

For various technical reasons, none of the clients could access the business management software they rely on to invoice clients, ship product or generally run their business.  For the third time.  The cause of failure differed each time, but really… does that matter?

I’ll tread cautiously here.  We’re not luddites.  Quite the opposite in fact.  After all, we provide sophisticated software systems and custom-tailored business process improvement services to a wide range of small and midsize manufacturers and distributors.  It’s all we do, and we’ve done it for nearly thirty years.  It’s mission critical stuff.  So we understand.

And we too believe that ultimately, hosted solutions ‘in the cloud’ are destined to be the future of most computing.  It will evolve, just like the electrical capabilities of a century ago evolved into the grid we know today.

But then, there’s you.  Our typical client, or prospective client, with a business to run.

When those dozen-plus clients of our friend went down, there was little anyone could do.  And mind you, among a growing array of cloud providers, the one they relied on in this case was a good one, trusted, with experience and lots of other clients.  Still, it happens.

I didn’t press for full details, but I know that some of those clients flat out lost business, could not invoice and/or could not ship.  It was lost business.  Maybe lost customers too, we don’t know.

But we’re all wise to remember a simple fact: the cloud is just some other guy’s computer.  And computers fail.  The fact that you have no idea where that guy’s computer is doesn’t make it any more helpful or secure.  Now, the reason we’ll all migrate there eventually is because multi-point, colocation redundancy with rapid fail-over switching will become commonplace.  Eventually.  (This still won’t solve the problem of giving you cheap software that’s customizable to your requirements – but that’s a subject for a whole other post on the limitations of multi-threading and multi-tenancy.)

But had those servers and software been located at the client’s own site, redundant backup and power generation to a known server in a nearby location (like, just down the hall…) could have prevented this.  Now imagine that you’re a manufacturer, and your shop-floor terminals that drive all your day’s production are now also dependent on that same cloud.  So when you’re down, you not only can’t sell, you can’t make, either.  That’s ‘down’ with an exclamation point.  And a lot of people on your payroll just standing around, waiting.

A 2017 survey of over 300 companies by Colorado’s Panorama Consulting, Inc. tellingly revealed that cloud adoption for business management software actually fell compared to last year, with a decreasing percentage of adopters year over year.

The best advice for those intrepid pioneering customers is the age old adage: caveat emptor.  You know what they used to say about pioneers being the ones up front with arrows in their backs.

Cloud is becoming a very profitable endeavor for its biggest providers.  The deck is stacked in favor of a never-ending stream of revenues to the providers, and the race is on to be the biggest and the best.  Just ask Amazon, Microsoft or Google.

All these companies know that in the long run they will make a lot more money from these recurring revenue streams than they were ever able to make, and sustain, selling software the old fashioned way.

Just remember who’s paying them all those extra revenues.

 

There is much debate today about what constitutes manufacturing and “the good jobs” in this country.  Many naively believe that more factories will cure the trade deficit and create jobs (in an economy already around full employment or, here in the Midwest, with jobs going unfilled).

“Die-hard conviction remains among many Americans that the more an economy manufactures, the stronger it is,” notes Michael Schuman a global business writer for several publications, quoted here recently in Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine.

So with the help of Bloomberg and some recent studies, let’s set the record straight here.

First, while manufacturing is critically important (we may be biased as purveyors of manufacturing consulting and software, but it’s no less true), it now constitutes just 12% of GDP, versus more than double that 50 years ago.  But the idea that “we don’t make anything anymore” as recently touted by the President himself, is simply a fallacy.  The U.S. is a global manufacturing powerhouse, accounting for just under one-fifth of all production worldwide.  While that lags China’s 25%, it exceeds the shares of Japan and Germany combined.  We’re still highly competitive, particularly in the tech sector, and in hard to make products like jetliners and medical equipment, to name a few.

But in today’s world, the real value in making something, as Schuman and others have noted, is no longer in actually making it.  Companies today know that the real value of a product lies in its research and design elements, in product development, in branding, and in after-the-sale support services.  As an example, a study a few years ago by the Asian Development Bank pointed out that the actual assembly production proportion of an Apple iPhone (mostly performed in Asia) relative to its full retail value was only 3.6%.  The remaining 96.4% went to parts suppliers and to Apple, its creator.

And to that point, Apple’s margins overall are over 21% — from a company that is known for its manufacturing prowess but which, in fact, does virtually no manufacturing of its own.  Meanwhile, a typical offshore manufacturer that Apple contracts with posted just a 3.5% margin on sales.  And by the way, Apple creates lots of jobs without having factories, including 80,000 direct employees in the U.S. alone with plans to add more.

While more factories can, technically, mean more jobs on a local basis, studies show that workers who lose their jobs in plant closings take a long-term hit to their standard of living.  21st century factories won’t create the number of jobs that 20th century plants did.  Automation, advanced manufacturing, robots and the like mean we’re making a lot more with a lot fewer people.  Job displacement is a natural byproduct of technological progress, and has been for centuries.  But as old jobs die, new ones are born.  It’s important to remember that early on in our history, 90% of us were farmers; today it’s 3%.  As long as education and skills are developed with the future in mind, there are always likely to be new jobs to replace the old.  But then, that’s a whole other subject.

Meanwhile, let’s see manufacturing for what it is, and worry less about factory jobs that no longer exist and aren’t coming back, and more about the innovation, design, marketing and 21st century product (and skills) development  — along with a healthy dose of free trade, we might add – that will create the innovative companies (think Apple, Tesla, Facebook) of tomorrow.

Those who toil daily on PCs know the frustration of working with computers that tend to slow down over time.  So today we share a few worthwhile tips from the editors of ComputerWorld detailing 6 ways to speed up your PC if you are running Windows 10.  Space prohibits sharing all six in depth, so we’ll share a few of the best here, and let you know that you can find the full text of the article here.

  1. Change your power settings. If you’re using Windows 10’s Power Saver feature, you’re losing performance to save energy which, particularly on a desktop PC, makes little sense.  Changing your power plan from Power saver to High performance or Balanced will give you an instant performance boost.  In Control Panel, select Hardware and Sound > Power Options.  There you can choose between Balanced and Power saver.  Click the down arrow over by Show additional plans, then choose the one you want.  Naturally, High performance gives you the biggest boost, but takes the most power, which might be a consideration if you’re running on a laptop battery.  Otherwise… go for it.

 

  1. Disable programs that run on Startup. Often, too many programs running in the background can slow you down.  Launch Task Manager with Shift-Ctrl-Esc.  Clicking on the Startup tab will display the programs launched when you start Windows.  You can right-click and then ‘disable’ programs you don’t really need to run all the time.  And you can always run the application after launch, or add it back to the list later.  (Tip: stick mostly to the ones with names or publishers you can recognize, at least to start.)

 

  1. Launch the Windows Troubleshooter. Type “troubleshooting” into your Windows search box then click the Troubleshooting Control Panel icon.  Click Run maintenance tasks under System and Security, then “Troubleshoot and help prevent computer problems” will appear. Click Next.  Troubleshooting will find files and shortcuts you don’t often use and identify other performance issues on your PC.  (You may need Administrator rights to run it.)

For info on three more tips, including the Performance Monitor, “Bloatware” and Disabling shadows and animation effects, check out the full ComputerWorld article we’ve captioned above.  Because as any power user knows, when it comes to performance, every little bit helps.

 

Manufacturing employers have for some time lamented the fact that they have plenty of job openings – said to be in the hundreds of thousands nationwide — with a distinct lack of qualified candidates to fill these newer positions in advanced manufacturing.  Today we share the hope of progress as related in a recent Time magazine article (June 12, 2017).  One answer, it would appear, lies in the growing number of community colleges that are teaming up and evolving their curriculum with local businesses to produce job-ready graduates.

One such effort at the Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota boasts an 83% retention rate (the national average is 50%) and that 99% of its graduates found jobs or went on to four-year colleges.  Starting salaries for graduates is over the state median, and over 300 areas businesses are participating.

Unfortunately, LATI’s success is not universal.  Community colleges educate about 40% of all U.S. undergraduates according to Time, and fewer than 40% of students graduate.  Meanwhile, states are cutting funding, and with more of the financial burden being placed on students, fewer can afford them.

Fortunately, some states are taking steps to make community colleges more accessible.  Tennessee expanded its free community-college program to accept all adults in the state.  Other states including New York and Oregon are making free or low-cost (with conditions) higher education available.

Most critically, post-recession, these colleges are starting to take a more vocational approach, and are becoming a primary vehicle for workforce training in the country, according to the director of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges.  According to Georgetown University, 11.6 million jobs were created in the post-recession recovery, and all but 100,000 went to people with some college education.

Creative ideas for job-training abound.  In Texas, a community college repurposed a shopping mall to become a high-tech learning lab with over 600 computers.  George Mason Univ. worked with Northern Virginia Community College (second in size only to Indiana’s community college, Ivy Tech) to co-develop curriculum to make it easier for students to transfer from community to four-year college.

Colleges today like LATI “shape coursework around the needs of employers and [rely] on donations of heavy-duty machinery for classrooms.”  They use miniaturized assembly lines, robots, 3-D printers and LED panels to help students learn skills required to secure a well-paying job.  As one student there noted, “Most of my class already has jobs lined up, and it’s a month before graduation.”

Education Policy Researcher Carrie Fisker says “Community colleges are now seen as the primary vehicles for workforce training in this country.

And considering recent reports that half of all retail jobs will be disappearing in the years ahead, it’s news that can’t come too soon.

 

As we celebrate “America’s Birthday” we thought it might be worth noting a few facts about the 4th of July.  Indulge me for a brief civics lesson… (I have taught Citizenship in the Nation Merit Badge to many boy scouts over many years after all… 🙂

  • America’s Independence Day is celebrated on July 4 because this is the anniversary of the day that members of the Continental Congress agreed to the final wording of the Declaration of Independence, according to the Oak Hill Publishing Company. Fifty-six delegates signed the document on August 2, 1776, after an enlarged copy was printed.
  • Independence Day signifies America’s break from England and King George III. It was not, however, the start of the Revolutionary War, which occurred in April 1775. Independence Day is celebrated with parades, patriotic music, fireworks, picnics, barbecues and family gatherings. The holiday was first recognized by Congress as an official day of celebration in 1870.
  • Several dates of American independence could have been chosen. July 2, 1776 was when the Continental Congress agreed to break away from England. July 4, 1776 is the date originally imprinted on the document, which is what is shown on the large copy of the Declaration of Independence located in the National Archives. August 2, 1776 marked the day the delegates actually signed the paper. August 10, 1776 was when King George III received the document. Drafts of the large Declaration of Independence were replicated on January 18, 1777, in Baltimore.

And now you know.

Know too that everyone at PSSI wishes all our customers, providers, friends and associates a happy and safe July 4th Holiday!

(And for some of us, it’s even our wedding anniversary!)