Friday, August 18, 2006

 

News Bites

Here are a few short updates on the day's headlines:


 

Friday Off-Topic: August 18: Adventures in Search, and What Will The Astrologers Do Now?!

On August 9th, the New York Times published an article called "A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher 4417749". That article alerted the web media that AOL had accidentally released search information on almost 660,000 of its customers to a public website-- apparently a bad move by workers hoping to help academic researchers with some project or other. Since then, writers and technically fiddly types have had a field day copying, sorting, and sifting the data, trying to see what patterns emerge from the search data. What searches were most popular? How much does what you search about give away about your identity? What, in short, is America looking for?

As it turns out, mostly for dirty pictures. But we at eMvoy could have told you that: we have, after all, been in the search business for quite some time. We can also tell you this: Britney Spears is no longer the search-engine superstar she once was. We're not sure why.

Moving on from the search for... stuff, to the more ennobling search for new information about our solar system, the International Astronomical Union met in Prague this week to discuss the state of its science. One of the topics on its slate was how to define a planet, seeing as how recently there have been arguments about whether or not Pluto should be counted as one. They've come to a provisional agreement on that definition: a planet is a spherical body that does not orbit around another larger body (like our moon; that's a satellite), but has its own independent orbit around a star.

If adopted, this definition would raise the number of planets in our solar system to twelve. Pluto's "moon" Charon, a Pluto-like object technically called 2003UB313 but nicknamed "Xena", and the large asteroid Ceres (between Mars and Jupiter) would be added to the total, and there would suddenly be hundreds of other candidates available.

Forbes notes the effect this new definition (if adopted) will have on textbook publishers, model makers, and poster printers. The Guardian tries out a few new mnemonics for remembering all the names. But we want to know: what about the astrologers? How on Earth will this affect the business of casting horoscopes, if all of a sudden we've got three new planets to consider?

If you're in India and you follow Vedic Astrology, the answer is: not at all. If you're worried about your newspaper horoscope, the answer is... we're not sure. Some astrologers seem to shrug it off, saying that the new planets will have been influencing events all this time anyway, so it's just a matter of studying the planets movements in the past to understand their influences.

Personally, we think the astrologers should be hanging their heads for not having predicted this change ahead of time.
 

This Week In Blog: August 14-18

Here's what we've been reading this week in the manufacturing blogosphere:

Supplyexcellence.com: GM Drives Toward Cost Goals With New Supply Techniques. Riffing off this Reuters interview with GM's procurement chief, Supply Excellence looks at General Motors's cost-cutting crusade.

The automaker has an ambitious goal to reduce costs by 2% before the end of 2006, and is looking to do that through it supply chain even as the costs of energy and raw materials continue to climb. Their two major methods? Using cheaper foreign suppliers (with an eye towards buying more from Mexico) and increased standardization of parts across car models (a great illustration: GM makes twenty-six different types of seat frames while Toyota makes two).

Shopfloor.org: Clamoring for Workers. The NAM has been shaking the federal government tree, trying to get some manufacturing education initiatives to fall out (and they've had some success). Here, the blog highlights a must-read article in the LA Times, "Factory Shift: Manufacturers Struggle to Fill Highly Paid Jobs".

In addition to looking at statistics about the decline of manufacturing and the number of high-skilled jobs left unfilled, the article tells the story of 21-year-old Daniel McGee. A graduate from a private high school, Mr. McGee opted out of going to college after high school in favor of technical college and a two-year metalworking apprenticeship, which is paid at $14 an hour and includes health benefits. When he's done, Mr. McGee will make $58,240 a year.

This article should be sent to every high school guidance counselor in the country: it's the antidote to the "dirty, dangerous, and dull" stigma attached to manufacturing jobs. We hope there will be more stories like it in the mainstream media soon.

Speaking of metalworking, over at The Fabricator's blog, Stephanie Vaughan talks to pipe welder Tracy Rumph, who is heading to the Middle East to work for a private contractor. Vaughan looks into the types of jobs available with Middle East contractors by browsing their websites.

We'd like to add that if you want to learn about what it's like to be one of these workers, you should listen to the radio documentary "I'm From The Private Sector and I'm Here To Help", a 2004 story from WBEZ-Chicago's This American Life. It's an excellent piece of radio, describing the lives of power plant workers and security personnel. If you don't have an hour to listen, you can also download a transcript (PDF document) by clicking here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

 

R&D Weekly: More Security Tech: The Cogito System

Last week we looked at cargo screening equipment that could be useful in determining whether what's in a bottle is harmless shampoo or half of a chemical explosive. This week we're looking at something even more advanced: a device that screens people, and then analyzes clues based on biometrics and cultural clues to determine whether or not they're a threat. It's called the Cogito1002.

The Cogito1002 is the mainstay product of Suspect Detection Systems, a company whose founders have experience with counter-terrorism in Israel. It has already been tested at border control points and airports. According to the Wall Street Journal (if you don't subscribe, there's a free reprint in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), recent tests of the system in Israel correctly identified 85% of officers acting as "bad guys" in an airport terrorism exercise, and incorrectly flagged 8% of innocent passengers as threats. The company says it aims to refine these results to 90% apprehension and less than 4% error.

So how does it work? It sounds a lot like an e-ticket machine, only with a polygraph attached:
"A passenger enters the booth, swipes his passport and responds in his choice of language to 15 to 20 questions generated by factors such as the location, and personal attributes like nationality, gender and age. The process takes as much as five minutes, after which the passenger is either cleared or interviewed further by a security officer."
With one hand placed in a sensor device, the passenger's physical responses to these questions are measured in a manner similar to a lie detector test. The questions themselves vary, depending upon the location of the device (an airport, a border control checkpoint) or intelligence about a specific threat, as well as the passenger's age, gender, and nationality.

That last attribute is important: the experts who developed Cogito1002 have researched cultural differences for a variety of nationalities or ethnic groups and choose words or questions that often provoke a physical reaction in terrorists from those groups. What happens if Cogito1002 picks up on a potential threat? It's not very dramatic: security officers will take the passenger to a back office for further questions. The new system was recently tested in Knoxville, TN, but the TSA and SDS did not give details about what was learned from the tests.

In addition to a machine that scans for "hostile intent", the TSA is also working on training security personnel to watch passengers' facial expressions and behavior to determine if a threat is present. This program, Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) is currently only in use at a dozen airports, but after last week's excitement in the UK, the TSA is eager to train more of its 43,000 personnel to use the methods involved.

Further reading:
"Faces, Too, Are Searched at US Airports", NY Times 17 Aug 2006
"A New Tack for Airport Screening: Behave Yourself", Time Magazine 17 May 2006

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

 

Big Buy: Looking for Harmony with RoHS

We're trying not to overdo the Reduction of Hazardous Substances story, but as it is the first environmental regulation to have an impact on global manufacturing, watching how companies cope with the directive is informative. It tells us a lot about current patterns of supply-chain management, and shows us how that's going to have to be handled as more and more companies are expected to be responsible for every component in their finished products. Designers and purchasers are the members of the company in the hot seat here, as manufacturers struggle to make sure every supplier knows what is and isn't allowed under the new rules.

On Monday, Forbes.com revisited the EU's RoHS directive and its impact on a few major electronics manufacturers, namely Apple, Palm, and Sony, who have had to pull products from the EU market due to unacceptable levels of lead or cadmium. Lead solder seemed to be a major stumbling block, in spite of the availability of lead-free alternatives.

The RoHS directive has been in place for six weeks, and while it doesn't yet seem to be wreaking havoc, it is causing considerable confusion and adding costs. An analyst quoted in the Forbes article says that companies could spend 2%-3% of sales, and up to 10% of their R&D budgets, on bringing products into compliance.

And they may be spending that money blind. According to recent research conducted by Arena Research and the Aberdeen Group, companies a) don't really fully understand the new regulations, and b) aren't investing in long-term compliance strategies. 83% of the 200 manufacturers surveyed by Arena Research would probably fail to have documentation proving RoHS compliance. Aberdeen found that two-thirds of companies it surveyed didn't have an in-depth knowledge of the regulations, and that 80% hadn't created a system for dealing with environmental compliance issues; they were treating EU RoHS as if it were a one-off deal. Those 80% need to get cracking to create a system for analyzing and documenting their supply chains for compliance, or their bottom lines will be in danger.

While they watch the ripples from the EU's RoHS, industry analyists have a weather eye on the wave of environmental regulations yet to come: China, Korea, and several US states will be enacting new environmental legislation over the next two years. The Chinese regulations in particular cover a broader range of products and materials than the European legislation. Most companies, on a board-member level, don't even seem to be aware of the Asian regulations in the offing. If you're in a position of influence at any company touched by these new regulations, spread the word.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

 

Click, Click, KABOOM!: Laptops of Mass Destruction Prompt Dell Recall

There are 4.1 million of them, in our homes, schools, and offices. They're time bombs, waiting for the perfect moment to wreak fiery havoc. And one of them might be quite literally under your nose right now.

Dude, it's your Dell laptop. More specifically the battery. If your machine was made between April 1, 2004 and July 18th of this year, or if you ordered a replacement battery for an older machine during that time, Dell wants it back. Due to some high-profile explosions and even higher-profile media attention (especially in the blogosphere), Dell has issued a voluntary recall for the batteries, the largest such recall in the history of the computer industry.

The batteries are Dell-branded lithium-ion laptop batteries made by Sony at plants in China and Japan. If you're worried about your own machine you can go to www.dellbatteryprogram.com to see a list of relevant models and how to return your battery.

While we're sure Dell has lost some customers and will have to suffer jokes at its expense for a time, we're also certain they will ultimately absorb the blow and soldier on. After all, they didn't make the faulty batteries.

But what about smaller manufacturers with similar problems? How does one manage a safety or PR nightmare like this one and not suffer crippling expense or loss of business? If you've got a story about how your company had to own up to a mistake, discuss it in the comments. And if you're writing in on a Dell, make sure you're wearing your asbestos underpants.
 

Energy and Environment News: August 14-18

This week, it's all about recycling.

First, via Grist, we've learned that the auto industry is taking steps to reduce harm to the environment (and human beings) by ensuring that mercury switches will be removed from automobiles bound for the scrapyard. Mercury switches aren't used in new cars, but in cars made before the 2002 model year the switches are part of lighting and brake systems. When cars containing the switches are crushed or melted, the mercury leaks into the soil or evaporate into the atmosphere (which nearby workers then inhale). Mercury is a seriously potent toxin that primarily affects the nervous system in human beings.

Once removed from the scrapped vehicles, the switches will handed off to mercury recyclers who will find other uses for the metal. So it could still end up in the soil or the atmosphere-- it just won't be going there via cars in the scrapyard.

Articles relating to the recycling effort:
Here's another story from the city without local beer. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review covered an EPA-Carnegie Mellon University conference dedicated to what could be the biggest recycling challenge of all: redeveloping industrial sites. It's called brownfields redevelopment; "brownfields" refers to an abandoned or obsolete industrial site that is contaminated by industrial pollutants. Brownfields redevelopment gives these old buildings new life.

After the company has pulled up stakes, leaving behind an empty, contaminated shell, developers and environmental scientists move in, deal with the pollutants, and turn the former eyesore into something new: a shopping mall, a conference center, or a housing development.

As you'd imagine, the Pittsburgh waterfront is absolutely thick with brownfields sites. Through private-public partnerships, they've managed to turn some of these eyesores into vibrant city attractions. The old LTV Steel plant, for instance, is now the SouthSide Works, a shopping/residential/office complex. In an effort to spread the redevelopment knowledge, Carnegie Mellon University's Western Pennsylvania Brownfields Center opened in March. It's meant to be a resource for environmental organizations, developers, and community officials interested in re-developing these unsightly but potentially useful sites.

Other states and municipalites are devoted to brownfields redevelopment, particularly in the Rust Belt. Here are a few resources and stories we found, including companies listed with eMvoy that provide brownfields redevelopment-related services:


Monday, August 14, 2006

 

Monday Roundup

News late last week was dominated by the foiled Heathrow Plot, but today has been a slow news day so far. Take the time to catch up on some other stories important to manufacturing and to the business world at large.

First, the US trade defecit went down-- down-- in June. While the $64.8 billion defecit-- the fifth largest monthly defecit on record-- isn't anything to cheer about, the three-tenths of a percent reduction is. Boffins expected the defecit to climb from May to June, but sliding dollar values helped pump up US exports to record highs, even as imports from China climbed. Here are two analysis articles for your reading pleasure, looking at the facts behind the numbers and ramifications for the currency market, and one contrarian story from the European press, just for the sake of balance:
Aviation security issues continue to hold top spot on the headlines, including this unnerving story via the Chicago Tribune about firearms vanishing from checked baggage at O'Hare. But in happier, aviation-manufacturing related news, Russia says "Da!" to Boeing: the aviation giant has entered into a joint enterprise with the world's largest titanium producer, Russia-based VSMPO-Avisma.

The two companies will share 50-50 responsibility for machining titanium components for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. Boeing has orders for more than 400 of the new passenger jets. Rough machining will take place in Russia, and component finishing will be handled at Boeing's plant in Portland, Oregon. An added bonus of the agreement is that it will reduce waste from titanium forging: any leftover machine turnings will be recycled by VSMPO-Avisma. Read Boeing's press release here.

From titanium to copper: as Chilean miners carry on their strike into a second week, copper prices continue to climb to ludicrous heights. In the European markets this morning copper for November delivery had risen almost 2%, to $7,700 per metric ton. The Escondido mine produces almost 9% of the world's copper. Labor and management are scheduled to meet tomorrow, but even if Escondido's issues are solved, there may be other labor-related disruptions to the copper supply. Mines in Canada and Peru will be conducting wage negotiations later this week.

Sugared-drink company update: Coca-Cola continues to watch its trade secrets theft case unfold: the judge in the case has asked the three suspects to give voice samples to be matched against phone conversation recordings offered as evidence. PepsiCo appointed its first female CEO, Indra K. Nooyi, who will take over from Steven Reinemund. PepsiCo has had a good run recently, due to diversification of products and less focus on its flagship soda pop.

This seemingly benign, progressive story about PepsiCo's new CEO has cynics buzzing. Ms. Nooyi is a native of Madras in India, and critics see her ascent to the top spot as a P.R. move: both Pepsi and Coca-Cola are in trouble in Ms. Nooyi's homeland. The soft drink giants are trying to defend their products' reputations in India, where several states have banned sales of the colas in schools and hospitals, claiming they contain pesticides. Both companies claim the product sold in India is made to EU standards-- claims recently supported by test results from an independent lab. There are fears within the Indian business community that foreign investment could suffer if the bans gain further momentum.

And finally, news from the gas station: while fuel prices hit a record high last week, relief may be in sight. Gas prices declined today on news of the cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon (Hezbollah is claiming victory over Israel), as well as on the good news that BP will be able to continue some production at its troubled Prudhoe Bay, Alaska oil field.

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