Thursday, August 10, 2006
R&D Weekly: Cargo Screening Technology
First, a look at what the 24 suspects-- most of them under 30, [link is to BBC list of 19 names released by banks] born and raised in the UK-- were apparently trying to do. The foiled scheme seems to be a near-carbon-copy of the 1995 "Bojinka" plot (masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, currently in custody in the US): attackers, carrying explosive chemicals in innocuous bottles, would mix and then explode homemade bombs in-flight, using electronic devices like watches or alarm clocks to provide the detonation charge.
If you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, you can read their excellent article "Menace In A Bottle" explaining how such bombs can be devised. If you don't get the WSJ, you can read this edition of Slate's Explainer column, which describes the different chemicals used in homemade bombs, and what would happen if a potential terrorist were asked to drink them in front of airport screeners (not that this would have affected any of the arrested suspects-- their bottles of sports drink had false bottoms for the explosives).
Both Bojinka in 1995 and the Heathrow Plot were foiled well before any would-be Jihadis reached the actual airport. Still, thoughts have naturally turned to the security check-ins at a departure gate near you. Is there any technology out there that can reliably detect liquid, as opposed to solid, explosives?
But of course, and much of it is made right here in the United States. Several news outlets are carrying discussions of this issue today, and probably one of the best is the New York Times, in an article called "Liquid Threat is Hard to Detect".
Rapiscan Systems makes the massive hold-baggage scanners you've seen at your local airport: these are not merely x-ray or metal detectors, but machines with the ability to fire radio waves at an object, analyze the vibrations produced, and then decide whether it's a block of C-4 explosive or a copy of, say, Thomas Pynchon's 1200-page doorstop novel Mason and Dixon.
According to Rapiscan's website, their detection systems work via density and mass analysis: shampoo apparently has a different density than TATP explosive fluid, and the computer is programmed to make calculations about density based on the apparent size of containers. Adaption of these hold baggage screeners for security checkpoints could mean that transportation authorities will let you carry a bottle of water and a book on a flight again someday (liquids were also banned on flights in '95 after the Bojinka plot was uncovered). But that doesn't seem likely to happen soon, as the Department of Homeland Security has been concentrating on providing funds for human screeners and other security personnel, according to the NYT.
They are investing in "puffer machines". The NYT explains:
The department has been moving ahead with the installation of one proven technology, so-called puffer machines, which blow a small amount of air on passengers to look for traces of explosives. To date, the machines have been installed at about 30 airports around the United States, including in New York and Washington.There are also upgrades to traditional x-ray machines available. Guardian Technologies, Inc. has a software program called Pinpoint Threat Identification Software. Pinpoint scrutinizes images produced by baggage x-ray machines, examining each individual pixel to analyze item densities. Apparently the software has a great track record for detecting "threat items" that have been cleverly hidden. One wonders if a Pinpoint-equipped machine would have spotted the false bottoms in the bottles. We'll only find out if we adopt the technology. You could always write to your congresscritter, and let him or her know you want the DHS to pay more attention (and devote more funds) to these innovative technologies that could help keep aviation and shipping safer.
But these devices may not sound an alarm if a terrorist has been extremely careful in preparing the liquid explosive, meaning no traces are left on the container or the person or bag carrying it.
Again, we're all lucky that the lethal hand baggage never made it to the airport in the first place. Thanks to law-enforcement in the UK and Pakistan, they didn't. And the first tip may have come from the oldest law-enforcement screening system of all: an anonymous informant. Reports from the UK suggest that police first got wind of something in the works when a British Muslim phoned to report a friend who had recently begun to behave strangely. Given the previous reluctance of the UK Muslim community to talk to police, that's probably the best news we've heard so far.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Green is The Color of Money: GM's New Plant
From GM's press release:
“Lansing Delta Township is the first of the next generation of industrial buildings,” said David Skiven, executive director, GM Worldwide Facilities Group. “It proves that sustainable manufacturing buildings can be economically built and operated. We are extremely proud of the innovative thinking of our employees and partners on the team that made this possible.”
As well they should be. See, this is what it's all about: finding better, less wasteful ways to make the things people want and need. A cleaner environment is a benefit to everyone, and it isn't incompatible with profit or quality products. Maybe now that energy-efficiency is a real cost saver, and not just something companies do to improve their image with people who wear sandals, more major manufacturers will start adopting greener design and technology.
The Big Buy: Week of August 7-11
While it's only normal that trucking companies have raised their fuel surcharges in light of rising gasoline costs, companies who have opted to switch to rail shipping now find that the rail companies are raising their fuel surcharges, too. But the precipitous rise in railroad surcharges has prompted some raised eyebrows at the Department of Transportation, according to Purchasing.com. In fact, the Surface Transportation Board (part of the DOT), recently published a proposal outlining possible regulation of railroad fuel charges. That is probably music to the ears of chemical manufacturers, who ship a large percentage of their products via rail. In fact, the American Chemical Council, the trade association for chemical manufacturers, issued a statement decrying what they considered unfair and possibly unscrupulous surcharges back in May.
The DOT's investigation might not make rail fuel surcharges any cheaper, but it should at least make them more predictable. Stay tuned.
So what's going to happen to the price of oil, based on BP's decision to shut down part of its Alaskan oil field? The price will probably stay up for a while. BP says that it has closed the eastern half of its Prudhoe Bay operation down while it repairs corroded pipeline, and by this weekend the company will decide whether or not to close the rest of the field. At half-capacity the field would produce 200,000 barrels of oil a day.
This situation is really affecting one purchasing department in particular: the State of Alaska's (read a statement from Alaska's governor here.). Alaska gets a whopping 86% of its revenue from taxes related to oil and oil production, so it is scrambling to plug a huge new hole in its budget. Every day of production lost at Prudhoe Bay sucks $6.4 million from the Alaskan economy. Governor Frank Murkowski has instituted a hiring freeze and is examining "the state's right to hold BP accountable for losses to the state."
While the implications for Alaska are serious, it's not much better for the rest of the US: Prudhoe Bay provides roughly 4% of our oil supply. Expect those shipping fuel surcharges to stay pretty high.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Energy and Environment News: China Tries to Clear the Air
Largely reliant on coal to provide its power, the emerging manufacturing giant is the least energy-efficient nation in the world and certainly one of the most toxic. In fact, according to a 2004 article in the Economist, China's pollution problem is so severe it is actually inhibiting the country's further economic development.
Air pollution particulates from China have been traced as far as the eastern seaboard of the United States. A high-profile 2005 chemical plant explosion in Jilian Province affected the water supply in parts of neighboring Russia as well as China, and brought worldwide media attention to witness the depth of China's industrial pollution problems. Now, exactly two years from the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing (the city with the worst air pollution on the planet), China knows it must clean up its act. Problem is, since its own environmental laws have historically been so lax, China hasn't developed the equipment or the know-how to process industrial waste and emissions.
Solution? Import the expertise. International environmental management companies and other groups are jumping to get their hands dirty in China. One French company has signed a 30-year contract to treat and clean waste from a gigantic chemical park outside Shanghai. JWC Environmental, an American company that began its life in a California garage, is selling sewage and wastewater treatment equipment to manufacturing plants and municipal authorities around the world. China is fast becoming one of its biggest customers.
While entrepeneurs from outside China clean up by cleaning up, other organizations are helping companies inside China develop cleaner technology. The World Bank's International Finance Committee, which handles private-sector funding, pledged up to $50 million to China's Xinao Group to help them develop clean coal systems. The aim is to stop China burning so much straight coal, and facilitate conversion of it to environmentally-friendly (well, friendlier) methanol and dimethyl ether (DME). DME is of real interest because it can be used in diesel engines, which would reduce emissions from China's exploding population of cars.
Whether or not China can clean up Beijing in time for the Olympics on 08-08-08 remains to be seen (marathon runners are already preparing for the smoky conditions). But, like a starlet dieting before the Oscars, the spotlight provides an incentive for China to change its habits. Certainly in the last few years China has slowly turned the corner towards beginning to manage its environment. Hopefully those changes will continue.
Crying Into Our Beers in Western PA
Much to the dismay of the greater Pittsburgh area, the Latrobe Brewing Company has ceased to produce Rolling Rock, its extra pale lager in the distinctive green bottles. Parent company Labatt-InBev of Belgium has sold the Rolling Rock brand (but not the brewery) to Anheuser-Busch. Rubbing salt in the wound, Anheuser- Busch will move Rolling Rock production from Latrobe to its East Coast plant in ... Newark, New Jersey. If you don't quite appreciate the outrage this move has caused, try to imagine what would happen if Jack Daniels suddenly announced it would be produced not in Tennessee, but in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the Latrobe Brewing Company, a mainstay of its hometown since 1893, faces an uncertain future. It appears that a deal is imminent that will save its 200 employees' jobs for the near term (the next two or three years at least). The City Brewing Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, is in negotiations to produce its own products in Latrobe. If a deal is reached, brewing of the Midwestern imports would probably not start until 2007, so those glass-lined tanks currently stand idle.
If we didn't know they've already been cleaned, we'd organize a field trip to collect residue. Instead, we'll leave you with this edition of Cecil Adams's The Straight Dope, which has the best story we've yet heard to explain the mysterious "33" printed on the back of Rolling Rock bottles.
Related story: Is all of the Pittsburgh metro area doomed to beerlessness? This item from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review covers the bankrupt Pittsburgh Brewing Company's labor battles. PBC makes Iron City, and is warning that, unless it gets the wage and benefit concessions it needs to survive, its brands will have to be sold and production moved elsewhere.
Advice for Western Pennsylvanians: switch to Yuengling. Don't worry about it getting sold off or moved on; that company has been run by the same family since 1829. Or, in just 5-15 years, you could become a brewmaster yourself; details about how to do that are here.
Monday, August 07, 2006
Burning the Talent Candle at Both Ends
However, eMvoyblog would worry more if this survey had been taken in 2011, not 2006. Most demographers peg the "official" start of the Baby Boom generation at 1946, so the oldest Boomers are just turning 60 (the President is one of them, having had his birthday in July). As they begin to retire en masse, the ratio of working adults to retired adults will shrink drastically. The waves of retirement haven't started yet, however, so companies who aren't now thinking about talent, training and recruitment still have some time to mull it over.
It's the bottom-up talent shortage, however, that's a little more dire. According to a 2002-2003 study by the National Association of Manufacturers, Deloitte and Touche, and the Manufacturing Institute, fewer young people and recent graduates see careers in manufacturing as desireable or rewarding. (Read the summary here; it's a PDF file.)
What's more, the entire US education system exacerbates the shortage by overemphasizing a four-year university degree as the only route to a rewarding career-- witness the emphasis on college enrollment rates in this report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Now, broader access to higher education is something to be lauded and supported. But a four-year degree shouldn't become the only avenue towards prosperity. Not everyone is suited to the collegiate environment, and the university cannot teach all the necessary disciplines society requires. The American economy, furthermore, is going to be in dire need of students with what would typically be called a technical school background (although technical schools are shying away from that name, as pointed out in this pithy blog entry over at The Fabricator). The over-promotion of college as a goal has led to the devaluation of other equally valid and vitally needed post-secondary programs: technical schools, apprenticeships, and two-year degrees. Providing young people with the skills they need to make a good living doesn't just bump up the GDP or keep America competitive-- it can turn young people into community leaders.
Industry trade groups like the NAM are working to increase interest in manufacturing work among young people by calling for initiatives at the federal level-- one such program is the Department of Labor's High Growth Job Training initiative, started in 2004.
Individual companies and smaller local trade groups can do their part to fight the manufacturing talent shortage at the state or local level. Send a delegate to the local schoolboard to explain how rewarding a manufacturing job can be to parents dazzled by glossy university brochures. Explore partnering with local high schools or community colleges to provide instructors or resources for apprenticeships and certification programs, like this one in Florida, or this one in Vermont. Sure, they're small-scale. But that's only because you haven't joined in, too.
Friday's Technical Issues
On Deck Week of August 7-11: Flat Rates, Rising Energy
Conventional wisdom holds that when the economy slows down, prices don't grow. One of the ways the government can help keep prices down is to drop its interest rates or keep it flat. However, the Wall Street Journal (subscription-only link, sorry) notes that conventional wisdom may not apply to our current situation:
The challenge for Mr. Bernanke is getting the second part of his forecast right. While growth does seem to be moderating, the anticipated slowdown in inflation hasn't materialized. Tomorrow, the Labor Department is expected to report a second-quarter uptick in the cost of labor and upward revisions to previous labor-cost estimates. Because rising labor costs can feed inflation, that could add to inflation concerns at the Fed and in the bond market.The New York Times has some analysis here (free registration link), which briefly mentions the effect of swelling energy costs on the economy (note: the Federal Reserve doesn't look at food or energy costs when calculating inflation). The writer observes that "energy prices are unlikely to keep rising as fast as they have in the past".
Which sounds heartening, until you go back to the front page of the NYT, where this headline is prominent: Major Alaskan Oil Field Being Shut Down.
Oy. Here's the story: A corroded pipeline has caused a minor spill in BP's Prudhoe Bay, Alaska operation. While it works to fix the problem, 1,000 wells will be offline. US oil production will drop by 400,000 barrels a day. That means a reduction of 8% in production, or nearly 3% in supply, at a time when the oil market is tighter than Cher's last face lift. Prices in the London markets have risen 2.4% so far today. According to Reuters, BP does not know when the pipeline will be fixed.
Aside: if you read the press release from BP, you will come across the phrase "smart pig run". We don't know about you, but eMvoy immediately imagined teams of hogs with miners headlamps checking the pipelines for rust. The term is from pipeline engineering, however, and refers to any device sent through the pipeline for the purpose of cleaning, separating products, or inspection. Click here to read a primer about pipeline pigs. [from the Pigging Products & Services Association website]
So, for discussion: inflation is the topic. We all know commodity and material prices are climbing, but what about labor, the other factor mentioned in the NYT and WSJ articles? Is your company seeing a rise in labor costs as well?