Why, why, why, why, and why?

Source: Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

What’s new?

Since 23 March, a quarter-mile-long container ship, the Ever Given, has been stuck across the Suez Canal blocking all traffic in both directions.

What does it mean?

While news reports about this situation are mostly focusing on the efforts to move the ship and on the possible consequences for world shipping (do we need another reminder of the risks of long supply chains?), potential causes that have been mentioned include strong winds and a loss of steering power on the ship. Another report said that mechanical or engine failure had been ruled out and that the ship had been involved in an accident involving high winds in Germany in 2019.

What does it mean for you?

In Fall 2006, I was teaching, as I did each fall, an introduction to industrial engineering course at Colorado State University-Pueblo. My goal in that course was to help students get the big picture of industrial engineering, including that industrial engineers tend to blame the system, not the individual person, when mistakes and accidents occur. I told the class that initial reports of accidents often cite operator error as the cause, but that later reports often uncover deeper, systemic causes.

The next week, tragically, in Lexington KY,  a small jet took the wrong runway for takeoff, overran the too short runway and all but one of the 50 people aboard died; in an early news article, the cause was cited as operator error by the pilot for taking the wrong runway. As the class and I watched the evolving story over the semester, it emerged that the airport was undergoing construction and runway entrances had changed the week before; that, contrary to FAA guidance, only one controller was in the tower and he had turned to perform administrative tasks; that, again contrary to FAA guidance, the controller had been given multiple responsibilities; that small commuter planes were not required, as larger jets were, to have an onboard system that checks for the correct runway; and that other factors may have contributed to the crash. While it is clear that the pilot and copilot missed cues that they were on the wrong runway and engaged in irrelevant conversation while taxiing, the FAA took several actions as a result of the crash to improve the systems for ensuring use of the correct runway.

In writing this blog post, I found a 2019 analysis of the crash that stated that some of the lights on the correct runway were not working and that Comair practice did not include comparing the “heading bug” and the actual heading on the display.  That article stated: “Because it’s impossible to expect a pilot to never make a mistake, redundant systems exist to ensure that mistakes are caught and corrected quickly.” That article also states: “The nuance of the situation unfortunately was lost on many. The media largely blamed the pilots without recognizing that mistakes are never made in a vacuum.”

Tools exist to analyze systems for risks before accidents occur and to analyze causes after accidents. For example, my local Boys & Girls Clubs (I sit on their Board) recently instituted procedures for recording and analyzing mistakes that might have resulted in an issue concerning safety of club members, whether or not something bad happened. Kid safety is a strong priority of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

In my experience as an engineer, good engineers are obsessed with preventing mistakes and accidents, in a strangely matter-of-fact way. On a visit to a manufacturing plant years ago, my small group had gotten a thorough safety briefing and were outfitted in hard hats, safety glasses, steel toed shoes, orange vests, and more. As we left the briefing room to start the tour, we descended an external staircase. The engineer leading our group turned around to make sure that each of us was using the handrail on the stairs. I smiled.

About 12% of world trade by volume“ goes through the Suez Canal. This episode has resulted in no loss of life or pollution, but the design of a system to keep the Canal open is vital not just to Egypt but to the world. An article by Captain George Livingstone calls attention to the systemic issues created by the ever increasing size of container ships.

Every accident or near miss should be analyzed and systemic improvements should be generated and considered to prevent future occurrences. Another industrial engineering principle is that workers work in the system; managers work on the system.

Where can you learn more?

Techniques for analyzing risk and discovering the root cause of errors include: FMEA,  mistake proofing, and the 5 Whys. The 2015 version of ISO 9000 certification focuses to a great extent on risk management.  

The fascinating book The Box by Marc Levinson describes the development of the shipping container and the changes that were required to the entire shipping system.

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Additive integration

Injection molding process. Source. This image is in the public domain.

What’s new?

A 16 March article in Automation World describes a new Stanley Black & Decker device (called the Inj3ctor) for manufacturing products from rubber by combining capabilities of injection molding and 3D printing.

What does it mean?

In the engineering program I used to chair, the course in manufacturing processes uses the well known textbook Introduction to Manufacturing Processes by Mikell P Groover, now in its 12th edition. As shown in the table of contents, the book covers materials and then describes a great number of  processes such as casting; extrusion; coating; injection, blow, and rotational molding; pressing and sintering; forming; rolling; forging; drawing; machining; turning; drilling; grinding; annealing; plating; welding; assembly; fastening; and more.

Of course, any product is manufactured from a variety of materials using a variety of processes. Indeed, the crucial engineering knowledge is design, which involves selection of appropriate materials and processes to create a product with the capabilities desired by the customer. Look around you and just about any object you see was manufactured using a variety of processes in various combinations: a pen, a cellphone, a chair, a door.

The idea behind the Inj3ctor is not revolutionary – a mold is 3D printed and a flexible material, such as rubber, is then injected into the mold – but the marketing of the product as combining these manufacturing processes caught my eye.

What does it mean for you?

Right now, additive manufacturing is somewhere between experimental and routine, with new processes being invented and some processes becoming routine. The change in name from “rapid prototyping” to “additive manufacturing” indicated the trend toward making these processes routine. The make-versus-buy decision and distinction between the specialized shop and a general manufacturing plant will affect how much additive manufacturing get integrated into other processes or remains stand-alone, but the Inj3ctor tells me that additive manufacturing is well on its way to becoming routine.  

In your manufacturing processes you are probably very much aware of places where additive manufacturing is being used, just as you know where you are using casting, molding, forging, or drilling, but in the future you will think less about the new or different aspects of additive manufacturing and think more about its use simply as another manufacturing processes. Engineers will routinely consider the materials and processes of additive manufacturing as part of their design of products.

Where can you learn more?

The best places to follow developments in additive manufacturing are still magazines and companies particular to those processes, for example, the information from Additive Manufacturing Media or this outlook from the company FormLabs. Another window into additive manufacturing is through applications in specific industries, such as medical devices or sports equipment.

General manufacturing magazines also cover additive manufacturing: Manufacturing Engineering from SME (Society for Manufacturing Engineering), Industrial Machinery Digest, Manufacturing News, Manufacturing Today, The Manufacturer, and more.

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Manufacturing matters

Tillamook cheese factory. Source: Good Free Photos

What’s new?

As part of its series on Most Innovative Companies, Fast Company published an article titled “The 10 most innovative manufacturing companies of 2021.” These ten companies were selected for their innovations in manufacturing processes. The icons on this link take you to other specialized lists in the Fast Company series.  

What does it mean?

Three of the companies contributed to the rapid response to COVID-19. SiO2 Material Sciences developed a better process to create a glass coating inside plastic vials. Carbon’s new product of improved nasal swabs was designed and launched in three weeks. Ford was cited for moving quickly to turn its designers and manufacturing facilities to producing PPE and ventilator products.

Four of the companies use 3D printing. Gantri was cited for using 3D printing to create custom designed lamps, Arris Composites for using additive manufacturing and molding to create better composites, Carbon for designing and 3D printing a better nasal swab, and Velo3D for innovations in metal additive manufacturing.

Sustainability is improved with several of these companies, often through its choice of materials. Gantri prints its lamps from plant polymers. Okeanos produces packaging with reduced environmental damage.

Lockdowel makes hardware for easy and fast assembly of wood products such as cabinets, closets, and furniture. The company is an example of a provider in a long chain, often invisible to the final consumer, that results, if done well, in superior products and lower costs: in one application, Lockdowel hardware is incorporated into cabinetry kits bought by home builders. The company has a wonderful set of videos on YouTube, showing their manufacturing processes and the use of their products. The company feeds my fascination with fasteners, an often neglected aspect of engineering design.

Instrumental provides in process inspection of products with computerized analysis of the images to detect product defects rapidly. SendCutSend provides fast laser cutting services for various materials, from steel, through carbon fiber, to wood.

What does it mean for you?

Among Fast Company’s many lists about innovative companies, I selected the list about manufacturing companies to emphasize that innovation matters in product design but also in the design of the process for making a product (or delivering a service). Industrial engineering, which is my area of expertise, is all about efficiency, quality, and safety in making products and delivering services.

These companies indicate several trends in industrial engineering, such as additive manufacturing, improved materials, and sophistical use of information technology. They also illustrate long-standing principles of industrial engineering, especially the emphasis on improving efficiency, quality, and safety.

Industrial engineering and sustainability are, I think, increasingly merging, to create a systems view supporting the three pillars of sustainability: people, planet, and profit. Your organization can’t afford to neglect any of these three. How do you find people who can take this broad systems view? Look for industrial engineers.

Where can you learn more?

The professional organization for industrial engineers is the Institute for Industrial and Systems Engineers IISE). Notice the crucial word “systems.”  IISE has links to videos, articles, webinars and podcasts about industrial engineering.

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My 30-year-old sweater

Au Coton sweater, purchased by the author about 1990. Photo by the author.

What’s new?

A 1 March article at Brit describes 15 clothing brands that are moving to be more sustainable.  For example, the brand YES AND states its commitment to organic cotton, fair labor, low impact dyes, and lasting quality. Selva Negra “is rooted in the use of ethical practices and is committed to ethically sourced materials, production transparency, zero-waste packaging while picking up new ways to reduce their carbon footprint.” Made Trade sells items that adhere to “one or more of Made Trade’s seven core values: Fair Trade, Heritage, Made in USA, People of Color Owned, Sustainable, Vegan, and Women Owned.”

On 2 February, the government of the United Kingdom released a report commissioned by HM Treasury, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, named after Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, the Cambridge University professor who led the work.

What does it mean?

In a previous blog post about fashion, I noted the limits of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” I argued that consumers can’t improve the sustainability of fashion on their own, and I urged manufacturers to consider designing their production processes to support a circular economy.

As an engineer, I believe that technology bears some blame for the ills that beset our society, but I also believe that technology can do much to improve society. Electric vehicles, with batteries charged by renewable energy, may help sustain the personal mobility that many seek. Changing the fashion industry so its production processes are more sustainable is a feasible and worthwhile goal. The companies described in the Brit article are doing good work.

The pink sweater at the top of this post is my favorite piece of clothing. Purchased over three decades ago, it was, I remember, rather expensive, but it has been well worth whatever I paid for it. As implied by the brand name Au Coton, it is 100% cotton; also, it is made in Canada, virtually indestructible, and never out of style (well, I am not very style conscious, so it has also been, I am sure, never highly in style). I rarely feel a connection to Marie Kondo’s injunction that we should retain only those possessions that spark joy, but this sweater does do that for me.

But sometimes I also feel that I have failed in my role as a consumer by not buying new sweaters and thus fueling our economy. That’s a silly feeling perhaps, but so-called advanced societies measure their well-being by their growth. A static economy is bad and a shrinking one is a recession, very bad. Keeping a sweater for 30 years does not fuel economic growth.

The good news for those who want growth is that many other humans are more fashion conscious than I am. I was struck by the recent attention given in social media to a shoe, described in this tweet from Museum Archive as a “2300 years old Scythian woman’s boot preserved in the frozen ground of the Altai Mountains.” The decoration on the sole is designed to be visible when the wearer sat on her knees, socializing around the fire. The shoe is in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. My conclusion is that fashion may have been invented before agriculture, before the wheel, even before homo sapiens.

What does it mean for you?

Despite my purchase of the pink sweater and other items from Au Coton, the company went into bankruptcy in 1993, but continued until 2003 in Canada, finally closing down “after the brand could no longer compete with conglomerate big box stores like Gap or Old Navy.” The brand is back now in Montreal and online; I am looking for another investment I can make in clothing that I plan to keep for another 30 years.

But the cautionary story of Au Coton raises the issue of whether a company can survive by selling clothing that lasts for 30 years. The Au Coton clothing is no longer made in Canada, but is stated to be sweatshop-free. Making items that last that long may be good for the earth, but not good for the economy, for jobs, and for growth.

The most widely cited definition of sustainability, from the Brundtland Commission in 1987, says “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Note the pairing of “sustainable” with “development,” a phrasing used to balance the concerns of developed and developing countries.

The Dasgupta report offers another economic path. It urges us to recognize nature as an asset, “just as produced capital (roads, buildings and factories) and human capital (health, knowledge and skills) are assets. Like education and health, however, Nature is more than an economic good: many value its very existence and recognise its intrinsic worth too.” The report states next, “Collectively, however, we have failed to manage our global portfolio of assets sustainably.”  “Nature’s worth to society … is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge.” Worse, many of our institutions not only fail to manage these externalities they actually pay “people more to exploit Nature than to protect it, and to prioritise unsustainable economic activities.” Our economies must be viewed as embedded in Nature. (The quotes are from the headline version of the report, available here.)

Its three recommendations are: (1) “Humanity must ensure its demands on nature do not exceed its sustainable supply….”  (2) “We should adopt different metrics for economic success.…” (3) “We must transform our institutions and systems – particularly finance and education – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.…”

With its first recommendation, the report notes: “But if we are to avoid exceeding the limits of what Nature can provide on a sustainable basis while meeting the needs of the human population, we cannot rely on technology alone: consumption and production patterns will need to be fundamentally restructured.”

Concerning the second recommendation, GDP is useful for some analysis, but its failure to account for the depreciation of natural assets, encourages us to pursue unsustainable development. National accounting systems must include natural capital.

Finally, money has to flow to support the maintenance of crucial natural resources. For examples, nations could be paid by other nations to protect the ecosystems on which we all depend. Also, education must reconnect people with nature so they demand these changes.

We need to have an economy in which producing and buying a sweater that lasts for 30 years or longer is common.

Where can you learn more?

A short description of The Dasgupta Review is here. The full report and other shorter versions are here. The Royal Society has a video discussion of the report here.

Various commentaries on the report express hope that it will have a large impact in improving our future: The Nature Conservancy, GreenBiz, the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

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