America’s “Home Alone” Manufacturers

In search of support. MIT's Professor Suzanne Berger believes that US manufacturers need more support.

Crossroads 2014. MIT’s Professor Suzanne Berger believes that US manufacturers need more support.

The US can be a lonely place for manufacturers, believes MIT Professor Suzanne Berger. The lack of a supporting ecosystem in the country means that US companies trying to scale up innovations have to do it alone, a situation that impedes the growth of manufacturing.

Berger is the Raphael Dorman-Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science at MIT, and one of the leading lights in the Production in the Innovation Economy (PIE) project, a major MIT research initiative on the future of US manufacturing. She explained the project’s findings at MIT CTL’s Crossroads 2014 conference, on the MIT campus, March 25 2014.

To illustrate the point, Berger compared Germany’s manufacturing sector to its counterpart in the US.

Some 22% of the workforce in Germany is employed in manufacturing, in contrast to the US where the participation rate is 11%. Germany has a trade surplus – even with China – and factory worker wages are 70% higher than in the US.

PIE researchers visited Germany to find out how companies there turn new ideas into commercially viable products. The experience of a German tool maker in the auto industry was an eye opener. The company wanted to diversify and identified an opportunity to apply its expertise to making artificial knees. It collaborated with technical universities and local banks, and engaged its workforce to help bring the idea to fruition.

Deep ecosystems like these play a key role in enabling German companies to bring innovations to market. Moreover, because the development and implementation phases are carried out domestically, the associated skills and expertise stay in the country.

In the US, however, this ecosystem is largely absent, said Berger. The banks have become national entities that don’t maintain local relationships in the same way than German institutions do. There is much less support from research consortia and technical universities.

There is no shortage of ideas in the US manufacturing sector, but without a supporting infrastructure many innovations fail to make it to commercialization.

An exception that underlines this shortcoming is the SEMATECH initiative in 1987. Companies in the semiconductor business joined forces with suppliers and universities to revive the moribund industry. Today the industry employs some 250,000 people and is a strong exporter. In effect, these entities came together to reduce the risk of bringing innovations to market.

Whether the US will learn from these experiences and develop a national support structure for manufacturing is an open question. Meanwhile, companies must do the best they can. Professor Berger authored a book based on the PIE research titled Making in America: From Innovation to Market (MIT Press, August 2013). But it should have been titled Home Alone, she said.

Videos of the presenations at Crossroads 2014, Biomanufacturing, Robots, and 4D Printing: The Next Decade of Disruptive Innovation, can be viewed here.

Logistics Past, Present, and Future

Logistics on the move. The logistics role is changing according to John Wiehoff, CEO of C H Robinson.

Logistics on the move. The logistics role is changing according to John Wiehoff, CEO of C. H. Robinson.

The logistics business has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. What will it look like a decade or so from now?

John P. Wiehoff, CEO and Chairman of the Board, C. H. Robinson (CHR), the world’s largest provider of truckload transportation services, visited MIT CTL recently to give his view of the changing face of logistics. Here are some highlights from his talk.

New benchmarks for excellence. “When I started customers cared about price and service,” said Wiehoff. “Most people thought of transportation as a part of their overhead.” While reliable service and low prices are still important, these metrics have become prerequisites for commercial success. Now the differentiators are more strategic: benchmarking, innovation, and network modeling, for example. “Companies are almost forced to use supply chain as a competitive advantage, and that puts pressure on us to understand their business strategy.”

Big Data’s big impact. The ability to store, manipulate, and disseminate huge quantities of data is another differentiator that is reshaping the industry. “Our systems cannot be down,” Wiehoff said, and that puts pressure on providers such as CHR to invest heavily in IT infrastructure. These investments also create opportunities because most shipper customers are unable to commit the same level of resources to their IT systems.

Skills shuffle. Twenty years ago CHR’s IT department consisted of 12 people. Today the company employs more than 500 of these specialists. The job title Strategic Account Manager did not exist in CHR a decade ago. Now these managers play a key role. “They have to understand their vertical,” said Wiehoff, and have expertise in international logistics. Both changes reflect the changing nature of the business.

Turning up the market heat. The competitive climate in the logistics business has always been intense, but has become even more severe over the last three to four years. One reason is the increased focus on cost control in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008. “We have a shipping community that is dialed into using technology and trying to make sure that they bid everything electronically.” Motor carriers – including relatively small operators – have become savvier at using the internet and many are diversifying into truck brokerage. There is increased competition from other 3PLs as well.

The latter trend is tied to a market shift that will impact the industry for years to come: the quest for scale. In the 3PL sector “we see a lot of aggressive behavior to get to the first billion (in sales)” Wiehoff said.

The reason is that scale has fast become a competitive necessity.

In the ocean mode, for instance, the consolidation of steamship lines means that more than ever shippers and 3PLs need the leverage that comes from high freight volumes when negotiating with carriers.

Another determinant of competitiveness, freight network density, is also a function of scale. As Wiehoff explained, “a lot of it comes down to who has to run the least number of empty miles to be ready for the next load, and the larger your network is the more dense your freight is. It’s a competitive advantage.”

He also pointed to cost pressures in the full truckload business as a major influence going forward. There is a general consensus that truckload is destined to become more expensive for a number of reasons.

Driver demographics is one factor. There is a shortage of replacements for drivers in their mid-fifties who will retire over the next decade. In part, the inadequate supply stems from insurers’ reluctance to cover younger drivers coming into the industry. As a result, companies will find it more difficult to hire the truck drivers they need to add capacity.

The cost of more stringent environmental and safety regulations is another concern. For example, improving fuel efficiency tends to reduce engine efficiency which leads to higher costs.

Truckload transportation will continue to be a core part of CHR’s business model, but the company is looking to reinforce its presence in the intermodal and less-than-truckload modes, said Wiehoff.

Still, the growing strategic profile of logistics bodes well for the future. “Twenty years ago it was all about getting credibility,” said Wiehoff. That argument has now been won, he believes, and there is widespread acceptance that logistics is a critical component of supply chain management.

John Wiehoff’s talk in March 2014 was part of the MIT CTL Global Leadership Lecture series. More information on the talk and an audio recording of the session is available here.

State of Supply Chain Management

New challenges. The transformation of retailing into a multi-channel business is one indicator of the changing face of supply chain management

New challenges. The transformation of retailing into a multi-channel business is one indicator of the changing face of supply chain management

This article was first published as a Linkedin Influencer post by MIT CTL Director Professor Yossi Sheffi. View the original post here.

As I explained in my previous post (How a Profession Went from Zero to Hero), supply chain management (SCM) has become a critical competitive differentiator in almost every industry.

SCM has evolved rapidly over the last decade or two to attain this lofty status. Now the profession and the business community must move even quicker to develop the supply chain expertise they need to excel in a rapidly changing world.

One of the most visible changes is the explosive growth of e-commerce. In this unforgiving commercial environment, SCM helps companies to achieve error rates of near zero when fulfilling orders. This is not a preferred target; it is a prerequisite for survival. Companies also have to respond at lightning speed to shifts in demand, and again, SCM is a key enabler.

A good example of how the profession is responding is the development of omni-channel retail models. Traditional E-commerce is also driving closer links between SCM and other disciplines, particularly sales and marketing. In today’s fast-changing retail markets the silos that often separate corporate functions become speed bumps that rob the organization of the agility it needs to compete successfully.

An area where agility is sorely needed is distribution. Logistics networks are constantly being reconfigured in line with changing market conditions. Rising labor costs in China, fluctuations in energy prices, and the need to meet increasingly stringent delivery deadlines, are some of the factors that are driving companies to rethink the way they deliver finished products to end customers. Strategies such as near-shoring – where manufacturing operations are brought closer to home markets – are among the SCM responses to distribution’s shifting kaleidoscope of delivery options.

The pace at which networks are reconfigured will increase as new innovations emerge. Take, for example, the introduction of 3-D printing or additive manufacturing. The technology is ideally suited to short-run production where items are tailored to the latest nuance in demand. The overall affect is to make supply chains even more reactive to customer buying patterns.

And these patterns are increasing in complexity. For instance, there is a general move away from discrete products and towards service packages. Changing demographics is one driver of this trend. Many populations are aging, and as individuals become older they require more support in the form of services. The outlines of this change are apparent in the “white glove” options that many companies now offer, and service-based products such as the Zip Car that offers consumers the opportunity to rent – as opposed to own – car capacity when they need it.

A stronger emphasis on services will increase the importance of SCM as a strategic resource. While it is relatively easy to reverse engineer a new product, supply chains that deliver consistent, high-quality services are much more difficult to replicate. Companies that master the art will be difficult to beat.

But even the masters face some exacting challenges.

They must learn how to embed excellent service in supply chains without any loss in performance, and become adept at building trust. Imagine a world where companies in the security, healthcare, and parcel delivery businesses provide home help services. A UPS driver might not only deliver, say, a toaster, but set it up for the (possibly elderly) consumer and explain the product’s service agreements.

Clearly, the next decade will be extremely challenging for SCM practitioners – and exciting.

Future SCM leaders will need both tactical know how and strategic vision if they are to help companies navigate these unpredictable commercial waters. They will be superb communicators across both geographies and corporate disciplines. And they will also be accomplished risk managers given the growing number of threats that companies face.

This mix of skills is in short supply, and although there are a number of industry initiatives to build a more effective talent pipeline, individuals who fit the profile will be in high demand for years to come.

We have been observing this trend for some time. The MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics offers a 10-month Supply Chain Management Master’s program that started in 1999. Graduates of the program are now being snapped up by a range of companies and achieve substantial salary hikes. The incoming average salary of the Class of 2013 was $68,000 compared to their average outgoing salary of $115,000. Not a bad return in 10 months!

Anatomy of Agility

Competitive play. As in sports, agile companies can choose not to respond in certain situations.

Competitive play. As in sports, agile companies can choose not to respond in certain situations.

If there was a league table of desirable supply chain attributes, then “agility” would be somewhere near the top. But what exactly is supply chain agility and how can it be evaluated?

Dr. David Gligor, Malaysia Institute for Supply Chain Innovation (MISI), is engaged in research to answer these questions. His initial findings provide a much better understanding of what constitutes this sought-after attribute.

“There has been a lot of research over the last 20 years on agility in business but there is much confusion over what it means and little consistency between the various definitions,” says Gligor.

Adding to the confusion from a supply chain perspective is that most of the work relates to other disciplines such as manufacturing. “Nothing new was happening in supply chain because we were building on these other studies,” he says.

In order to shed a new light on the supply chain interpretation of agility, “I decided to go outside of the business domain,” Gligor explains. Two areas that are steeped in the study of agility and change management emerged: military science and sports science.

Combat troops must deal with constant and, frequently, dramatic change, so it came as no surprise that military strategists have put agility under the microscope. Athletes also have to react to sudden and often unexpected change in the field, and a high level of agility is almost a given in the sports world.

Learning from research carried out in these fields, Gligor identified five dimensions of supply chain agility. Each dimension represents a step in a process towards building an agile supply chain.

Alertness.  Defined as the ability to quickly detect changes, opportunities, and threats, companies have to be alert in order to respond to change.

Accessibility. This dimension refers to the ability to access relevant data. Once a new development is detected, the organization must quickly retrieve the data it needs to analyze the situation.

Decisiveness. Enterprises that make decisions resolutely are defined as decisive. In the sequence of responses, this means that the organization is able to act on its analyses of the situation.

Flexibility. The fourth dimension of supply chain agility is defined as the ability to modify the range of tactics and operations to the extent needed. Even if a company can act decisively, does it possess the required flexibility in its operations to take the appropriate action?

Swiftness. Finally, how quickly can the enterprise go through the various steps in the process?

The first three elements are classed as cognitive in that they enable the organization to identify change. The last two are physical elements since they cover taking action after deciding how to react to a given situation.

There is some confusion over the distinction between agility and responsiveness, says Gligor. “Being agile means having the capability to be responsive.”

A sports example helps to clarify the difference. In soccer, a defender might be agile enough to tackle an oncoming opponent, but chooses not to follow the strategy because where he is standing in the field puts the opponent in an offside position. In other words, he meets all the requirements for agility but chooses not to respond. The business equivalent might be an agile company that has the option to sell more goods in a new market, but decides not to expand in this way because the sales would not meet its profitability criteria.

The next stage of the research focuses on ways to pinpoint where an organization’s strengths and weaknesses are in terms of supply chain agility. The aim is to help companies assess their effectiveness on each dimension and the best combination of elements for their supply chain or a particular strategy. This second phase should be completed in the next several months.

This post was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of Supply Chain Frontiers. Subscribe for free to Frontiers here. For more information on the supply chain agility research project described contact David Gligor.

Photo credit: Matt Boulton

Impact of Macro Trends on Supply Chains: Decentralization of Production

Traditional mass-production manufacturing plants lower the unit cost of production but in many cases are too inflexible for today’s fast-changing markets. Alternative manufacturing models are emerging that are much nimbler; a development that spells big changes for supply chain management.

In my previous blog post Impact of Macro-Trends on Supply Chains: Digitization of Products, I looked at how product digitization might impact distribution networks. This final post in a four-part series on broad trends that could transform supply chains considers the effects of decentralization.

One of the primary reasons manufacturing is often carried out across the globe is to achieve economies of scale: a single massive plant can dramatically reduce per unit production costs.  Economies of scale arise when there is a large fixed cost that can be allocated over a large number of items.  Two obvious examples are specialized production lines and automated distribution systems.  If these costs were purely variable, then there would be little economic incentive to centralize production.

While centralized or mass production does lower the unit cost, it increases the cost of customization.  There is an inherent loss of flexibility.  Being able to leverage the same equipment or investment over and over creates this per-unit savings.  The initial cost of automating a production line can be exceptionally high, but it is worthwhile if it can be used for thousands of items.  However, if the product changes, the system typically needs to be re-tooled – a very costly and time consuming process.  The same is true for automated warehouse systems.  Changing packaging sizes or dimensions can result in significant costs.

What if new manufacturing technologies and production processes could diminish the benefits of economies of scale while simultaneously decreasing the costs of customization?  The result would most likely be a larger number of smaller manufacturing sites located, logically, closer to centers of consumption.

There are several examples of emerging technologies that have this potential.  Here are just three.

The first example is additive manufacturing (AM) that I discussed in my last blog post.  AM allows formanufacturing in batches as small as one.  The set up time and switching costs are exceptionally low.  The per-unit manufacturing costs are not as low as a mass manufactured item – but there is incredible flexibility and capability to customize.  Also, for items with very sparse demand, the cost of producing items as needed can be lower than the sum of the costs associated with manufacturing, holding, transporting, and product shrinkage.

A second example is where technology has lowered the cost of automation and allows for easier scaling.  Kiva Systems manufactures and sells automated warehousing solutions that feature autonomous mobile robots that essentially bring the product to the picker.  Because the system relies on autonomous, yet coordinated, robots to assist in the distribution, it is easy to start small and add units as needed.  This is especially helpful for small to medium sized warehouses.  There is a reason why Amazon recently acquired Kiva as it begins to role out more regional fulfillment centers poised for same day delivery.

A third example is Baxter.  Manufactured by Rethink Robotics, Baxter is a robot that is designed to work side by side with humans and perform a wide range of repetitive manufacturing tasks.  It is exceptionally flexible and can be trained by line workers.  The idea is that Baxter has the capability to learn “on the job” and therefore grows with the operations,  taking on new tasks or modifying its job as needed.  This reduces the fixed cost of automating a manufacturing line and allows a firm to add automation as needed – similar to what Kiva does for warehouse operations.  This again is automation with a lower initial fixed cost.

These are just three examples of technologies that change the economics of manufacturing and distribution.  There are many more out there – and even more that will come out of the labs over the next year or so.  The general trend is to utilize technology to decrease the cost of flexibility while not dramatically increasing the per-unit cost of manufacturing.

So, will decentralized manufacturing disrupt the dominant design of distribution?  The short answer is yes.  It could change a lot.

First, it is important to note that as manufacturing processes move to smaller scale, the input materials become more expensive.  In fact, the input becomes more like a finished product.  A good example of this is personal photography where the printing of photographs has shifted from large-scale film processing machines to individual home printers over the last 10 years.  The input for the typical film processing machines consist of bulk chemicals and ink while for home printers it is individual ink cartridges where the cost per developed photograph is up to 10x higher than traditional methods.  Even with the higher per-item cost, it is preferred since there is less waste.  One does not need to print out the entire roll of film to find that one photograph to keep.

Another example that is close to home is the single cup coffee machines (such as Keurig or Nesspresso).  The machines are very convenient and allow the user to stock a wide variety of different flavors of coffee.  As with the photography example, however, the cost of the input materials is much higher for the smaller scale production.  The cost of coffee for use in a traditional drip coffee maker is between $5 and $7 per pound while the cost for a Keurig K-cup is equivalent to paying between $35 – $50 per pound!

Manufacturing closer to the point of consumption places more emphasis on the last mile delivery – the most expensive and most environmentally harmful transportation leg.  This also places more manufacturing (albeit smaller size) closer to residential areas; adding to congestion and exasperating urban mobility.

This could also translate into less transportation of finished goods over long distances.  To feed the smaller scale and dispersed manufacturing sites there will be more bulk transport of raw materials.  But, as shown in the two examples above, the input to a smaller scale process has more packaging and bears more resemblance to finished goods than raw materials.

In short, decentralization could dramatically impact and change the dominant design of distribution within the United States.  One of the key drivers of decentralization is the digitization of the product.  This enables different manufacturing techniques that are more amenable to smaller scale production.  Having smaller production sites closer to population areas will reduce the level of finished goods shipped across the globe and will increase the length of haul of the input materials.  There will also be an increase in local delivery in congested urban areas.

How a Profession Went From Zero to Hero

Linkedin Innovator, Professor Yossi Sheffi, Director, MIT CTL

Linkedin Influencer, Yossi Sheffi

This post was written by Professor Yossi Sheffi, Director, MIT CTL, for his Linkedin Influencer site. Follow Yossi’s Influencer posts here.

Supply chain management (SCM) is no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of corporate functions.

While sales and marketing wins customers, SCM keeps them with excellent service and unfailing on-shelf availability. And these qualities are becoming even more important in the age of e-commerce.

SCM’s journey from afterthought to core capability parallels the way in which the business landscape has changed over the last two to three decades.

In the early days the function was known as transportation or warehousing (these are still important activities today but are components of SCM). As a “blue collar” department it commanded relatively little respect, and was generally regarded as a cost center.

These perceptions began to change as the customer moved to the center of the business universe. It dawned on companies that they could win market share by making products that buyers yearn for, and delivering them consistently at the right time, in the right quantities, and at the right location. Enterprises such as Apple, Walmart, and Zara gained dominant market positions largely by building and operating supply chains that excel in this way.

Over the next decade or so a number of developments further boosted SCM’s stock.

-         New practices. The emergence of just-in-time and make-to-order business models brought higher levels of efficiency to businesses – models that require extremely efficient supply chains to be effective.

-         Globalization. As enterprises expanded internationally they came to realize that profiting from global growth is not possible without supporting supply chains. Buzz terms such as offshoring and, latterly, near-shoring, became part of the business lexicon.

-         Changing world order. The rise of economic powerhouses such as China and India has underscored SCM’s role in facilitating global trade. Within these regions companies have to learn how to create supply chains that deliver goods worldwide, while western companies must adapt their supply chain know how to unfamiliar markets in developing countries.

-         Market volatility. The financial meltdown that rocked world economies continues to reverberate through markets. As a buffer between companies and their customers, supply chains play a key role in helping enterprises to manage the volatility that has become the “new normal” in the business world.

-         Risk management. As company operations span more countries they become exposed to a wider range of risks. Whether it is the discovery of lead paint on toys, deplorable factory conditions in sweat shops, a devastating tsunami, punitive regulations, or a military conflict, unexpected disruptions can do extensive operational and reputational damage. SCM is at the heart of efforts to mitigate and/or eliminate these risks.

-         E-commerce. The explosive growth of online commerce has enhanced SCM’s position within companies. The sheer pace of change in these markets requires enterprises to be very responsive to shifts in demand. Moreover, online consumers have a low tolerance for mistakes or delays, and can injure a brand by communicating their displeasure far and wide via social media sites. The bottom line: companies that do not have efficient supply chains supporting their online operations will almost certainly stumble.

-         The sustainability wave. SCM is one of the primary players in the worldwide movement to develop environmentally sustainable businesses. The physical distribution of goods is a major generator of carbon, for example.

The increasing importance of SCM has also brought a major challenge: how to ensure that there is enough talent to meet the profession’s needs today and tomorrow. In addition to lifting the demand for supply chain talent, SCM’s elevated role requires a mix of skills that is very different from what was needed a decade or more ago.

Educators such as the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics are playing their part to build a better talent pipeline. For example, in 2015 we will launch a ground-breaking virtual classroom for the global supply chain profession.

Meanwhile, my hope is that more of our best and brightest talent will realize that designing and managing the sustainable flow of goods, information, and finance across the globe is one of the most exciting and fulfilling careers imaginable.

High finance is alluring, and manufacturing offers some attractive challenges, but SCM is where the real action is. And the creation of job titles such as Chief Supply Chain Officer shows that the profession now provides a route to the C-suite.

The Rodney Dangerfield function has come a long way, and its journey is far from over.

Google Robots and the Rewiring of Automation

Does Google’s entry into the robotics industry mark the beginning of a renaissance in manufacturing automation?

An article titled Can Google’s Robots Build  a New Future for US Manufacturing? In the online publication Supply Chain 24/7 considers the company’s influence on robotics, and, by default, the supply chains that support manufacturing operations in the United States and worldwide.

The article also draws on the recent Supply Chain @ MIT blog post Crossroads 2014: Dances with Robots, about new advances in scheduling robots on the factory floor.

Dr. Julie Shah, Head of the Interactive Robot Group, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. will describe the latest developments in robotics technology at the forthcoming MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics’ Crossroads 2014 conference, March 25, 2014, on the MIT campus, Cambridge, MA.

As the Supply Chain 24/7 article points out, companies such as Apple and Amazon have made big investments in automating manufacturing processes, but the arrival of Google on the scene is a potential game changer.

In the article Robert Atkinson, President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, suggests that Google might do for robotics what it did for mobile software – create a more interoperable platform that could be applied across various industries and at lower costs.  This is what the company achieved with the Android operating system in mobile markets, and it is significant that Andy Rubin, the behind the Android, now heads up Google’s work in robotics.

Moreover, the online giant is collaborating with Taiwan-based contract manufacturer Foxconn on the development of robot systems. Foxconn has announced plans to invest $40 million in a US robot manufacturing facility.

The net effect on US manufacturing is still unclear, however. The article argues that uprooting carefully integrated supply chains from China and re-establishing them on US soil will be difficult. Also, it is far from certain that bringing these operations back to America will generate employment opportunities. On the one hand, the new generation of robots could increase productivity and stimulate demand thereby creating new jobs. On the other hand, automation will almost certainly eliminate some positions.

Perhaps these arguments are, to a large extent, missing the main point, that we are entering uncharted waters and the shape of manufacturing – and global supply chains – is undergoing radical change.

The 2014 Crossroads conference opens in less than one month. Register for the conference, Biomanufacturing, Robots, and 4D Printing: The Next Decade of Disruptive Innovation, here.

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