Operations Article

Andrew Schutte’s picture

By: Andrew Schutte

Industrial engineers design, develop, test, and evaluate integrated systems for managing industrial production processes. Functions include quality control, human work factors, inventory control, logistics and material flow, cost analysis, and production coordination. These and other facets are usually part of the job description when being hired.

Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 10-percent growth rate among industrial engineers from 2019 to 2029, the attrition rate is anecdotally just as high; that equates to 100-percent attrition in a decade. Nowhere is the dissatisfaction and attrition of industrial engineers as great as in the engineer-to-order manufacturing space.

Nicholas Wyman’s picture

By: Nicholas Wyman

It’s a new year, with a new president and new opportunities to boost modern apprenticeship programs in the United States that can help get people back to work and stimulate the economy.

Getting people into apprenticeships has never been more vital, as job losses caused by the pandemic continue to affect millions. Young people in particular have been hit hard, as they’re most likely to be employed in retail and hospitality, two sectors essentially shut down during the Covid-19 crisis. Speed is vital. We can’t risk losing an entire youth cohort to sustained joblessness that could affect their entire lives. Funding new apprenticeships not only provides jobs now, but also generates high, long-run gains in skills, productivity, and earnings for young workers and companies.

Luckily, there are proven strategies for creating apprenticeships and getting young people employed. We just need to look abroad: Australia and the United Kingdom have strong apprenticeship programs and moved quickly to protect apprenticeships when pandemic-related job losses hit last summer. Their experience highlights four strategies that could be adopted by the Biden Administration and funded through the next stimulus program.

Jose Luis Alvarez’s picture

By: Jose Luis Alvarez

Alexander Hamilton, one of the United States’ founding fathers, famously called energy the most important characteristic of the executive branch of government. “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government,” he said in the Federalist Papers. “A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” Contemporary corporate CEOs should heed Hamilton’s warning.

No matter how capable CEOs might be, they need the help of a trusted team: an executive committee of senior managers who report directly to them, meeting regularly to help shape the collective work of the enterprise. CEOs and their executive committees (excos) are the veritable energy reactors of organizations.

However, my counseling experience indicates widespread dissatisfaction with these committees among both leaders and members. Research shows that the problems faced by excos are so widespread that effective teams are rare, and work well only when they fit the CEO’s leadership style.

Andrew Peterson’s picture

By: Andrew Peterson

Manufacturing robotics is to some extent following a similar path of advances to those in machining and fixed automation systems. Though the ROI is most easily measured in efficiency and cost savings, manufacturers are looking for robotic technology to help them resolve a pain point in their operation or to create new opportunities. It might be to link processes more efficiently or eliminate the need to outsource a specific function or two.

The growth path for small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) with robotics is therefore increasingly focused on applications and added capabilities, not just efficiency and continuous improvement. The key to increasing adoption of robotics in SMMs is making the robots easier to use and reuse.

In essence, adoption is dependent upon robots having more human-like dexterity and self-control.

NIST Labs has designs on making robots easier to use

Scientists and engineers at NIST Labs are working to close a significant gap between cutting-edge technology and what is currently deployed on many manufacturing shop floors. This is largely due to the lack of measurement science to verify and validate emerging novel research and thus reduce the risk of adoption.

Multiple Authors
By: Aarti Gumaledar, Sameer Hasija, V. Paddy Padmanabhan

Globalization of trade and decades-long innovation in supply chain networks have resulted in significant benefits for all stakeholders—greater efficiencies, lower costs, and greater access to markets, to name just a few. Yet Covid-19 has exposed vulnerabilities in global supply chains. Dispersed supply chains offer more possibilities for shocks to penetrate and spread, and practices such as “just-in-time” and single sourcing can amplify shocks and lengthen recovery time.

Which begs the question: Why weren’t companies better prepared? After all, academics and practitioners have been stressing the importance of agility and resilience in the supply chain for decades. They have advocated for diversification so value chains can handle demand and supply shocks. The problem, however, is that in good times, companies are unwilling to make the larger investments that have always gone along with diversification, in the form of complexity and coordination costs. The choice is to either save money with a concentrated supply chain structure that increases crisis vulnerability, or build in expensive redundancies to prepare for a rainy day that may be a long way off. This cost-agility trade-off (figure 1) leaves conscientious companies splitting the difference between present realities and projected future demands.

Henrik Bresman’s picture

By: Henrik Bresman

Right now it seems far away, but a post-Covid world is coming. Is it closer to us than the start of the pandemic? We can’t say with any certainty, but we must think about how we will work in the future. The sudden changes of early 2020 showed us how we are capable of extraordinary transformations.

Before the disease struck, teams were adapting to the tremendous pace of technological and social developments. In fact, the arc of change was very much in motion when it was slammed into overdrive by the pandemic-sparked move to working from home.

Teams had to adapt immediately. Previously one or two colleagues might have been “remote”—different from the rest of the group—but within days everyone was untethered from the physical office. Team members found new ways to connect, adding an extra layer of work in the midst of a global pandemic, itself a time of incredible stress.

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

By: Bruce Hamilton

As we begin to take our approximately 4 1/2 billionth trip around the sun, I’m reflecting on the previous 525,600 minutes and looking ahead to the new decade. The decade (the ‘20s), by the way, began last month, not a year ago, a factoid noted in a short address by Hiroyuki Hirano in 1999 as the world approached the cyber-perils of Y2K.

After listening to Hirano explain multiple overwhelming challenges that manufacturing would face in the next century (Y2K was not one of them), I naively asked him what countermeasures he would recommend to manufacturers. “Oh,” he quipped, “I tell my friends, don’t go into manufacturing. It’s just too difficult.” 

Joshua Pearce’s picture

By: Joshua Pearce

People will recycle if they can make money doing so. In places where cash is offered for cans and bottles, metal and glass recycling has been a great success. Sadly, the incentives have been weaker for recycling plastic. As of 2015, only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled. The rest pollutes landfills or the environment.

But now, several technologies have matured that allow people to recycle waste plastic directly by 3D-printing it into valuable products, at a fraction of their normal cost. People are using their own recycled plastic to make decorations and gifts, home and garden products, accessories and shoes, toys and games, sporting goods, and gadgets from millions of free designs. This approach is called distributed recycling and additive manufacturing, or DRAM for short.

As a professor of materials engineering at the forefront of this technology, I can explain—and offer some ideas for what you can do to take advantage of this trend.

Steven Ouellette’s picture

By: Steven Ouellette

What is the most important thing for your business to be working on right now? Would everyone else working there agree? Is everyone working toward the business’s goals? How do you know?

Most businesses in my experience cannot answer these questions. There may be metrics, but they are not translated down to individual contributors or integrated with each other. They may be incomplete. Management may announce every year that this is the year we are all going to work on profit, or customer satisfaction, or some metric they read about in an article, but they never translate what that means for individuals, and nothing seems to change. There is often an idea that we should be doing something as a business, but different opinions as to what that might be. There is internal competition rather than cooperation.

You need a process to not only be able to answer these questions, but also to answer them with data. Everyone in the company needs to be able to show how they contribute to the organization’s goals.

Philippe Aghion’s picture

By: Philippe Aghion

Imagine a ship at sea, at risk of sinking in a tempest. Is it better to empower the crew to do whatever it takes to save the ship, or should every decision be made by the captain and top officers? Similarly, what should the optimal form of firm organization be during a severe downturn? The need to make tough decisions—including layoffs—may favor firms that concentrate power at the top. However, the turbulence and fast-shifting conditions magnify the value of the information held by local managers.

The two views can be compelling. Indeed, in the depths of the Great Recession of 2009, a survey of executives by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit revealed that decision-making had become more centralized in the C-suite. The rationale: to emphasize “projects that provide benefits across the enterprise rather than individual units.” But in another report three months earlier, the same publication argued that “companies have to deal with dramatically more uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in the current recession. Success does not come from centralization.”

So who should be in charge: the crew or the captain?

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