Tag Archives: manufacturing

The Landscapes of Gadgets

Stat­ing that mod­ern giz­mos (in this example, the iPhone) are no longer just depend­ent on highly integ­rated and developed sys­tems for their pro­duc­tion, but now also depend upon “a vast array of infra­struc­tures, data eco­lo­gies, and device net­works” for their oper­a­tion, Rob Holmes’ “mind-bog­gling update to I, Pen­cil”* looks at the land­scapes of extrac­tion, assembly and oper­a­tion mod­ern gad­gets cre­ate.

As Google is, like Apple, quite secret­ive about the details of the phys­ic­al loci of its imma­ter­i­al product, the loc­a­tions of less than half of Google’s Amer­ic­an data cen­ters are known, with those known cen­ters spread between Cali­for­nia (five cen­ters), Ore­gon (two), Geor­gia (two), Vir­gin­ia (three), Wash­ing­ton, Illinois, Texas, Flor­ida, North Car­o­lina, South Car­o­lina, Oklahoma, and Iowa.

The first of these data cen­ters to be con­struc­ted is in The Dalles, Ore­gon, and “includes three 68,680 square foot data cen­ter build­ings, a 20,000 square foot admin­is­tra­tion build­ing, a 16,000 square foot ‘transient employ­ee dorm­it­ory’ and an 18,000 square foot facil­ity for cool­ing tower­s”. Like Google’s oth­er data cen­ters, the Dalles facil­ity con­sumes enorm­ous quant­it­ies of elec­tri­city (estim­ates range from 50 to 100 mega­watts — some­where between a tenth and a twen­ti­eth of the capa­city of an aver­age Amer­ic­an coal-fired power plant), gen­er­at­ing sim­il­arly large quant­it­ies of heat, which neces­sit­ates loc­at­ing the cen­ters by sig­ni­fic­ant water sources for the chillers and water towers which cool the serv­ers.

Inside, the data cen­ters are filled with stand­ard ship­ping con­tain­ers, each con­tain­er packed with over a thou­sand indi­vidu­al serv­ers run­ning cheap x86 pro­cessors: anonym­ous, mod­u­lar data land­scapes, the nerve cen­ters of America’s con­urba­tions, their stand­ard­iz­a­tion and dull rec­ti­lin­ear­ity indic­at­ing extreme place­less­ness, but con­tra­dicted by the logist­ic­al logic of water bod­ies, energy sources, and trans­mis­sion dis­tances which gov­erns their place­ment.

* As Simon Bostock called it (via).

Business Schools Failing American Manufacturing

Amer­ica’s deteri­or­a­tion as a lead­er in the engin­eer­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing fields can be attrib­uted largely to the fail­ings of the élite busi­ness schools, sug­gests Noam Scheiber, Rhodes Schol­ar and seni­or edit­or at The New Repub­lic.

Busi­ness school gradu­ates are now edu­cated toward high paid fin­an­cial ser­vices jobs, lead­ing gradu­ally to an “era of man­age­ment by the num­bers”. Exec­ut­ives are now more adept at buy­ing and selling assets than run­ning indus­tri­al com­pan­ies, and this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ROR has res­ul­ted in “a [reluct­ance] to invest heav­ily in the devel­op­ment of new man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses”.

Since 1965, the per­cent­age of gradu­ates of highly-ranked busi­ness schools who go into con­sult­ing and fin­an­cial ser­vices has doubled, from about one-third to about two-thirds. And while some of these con­sult­ants and fin­an­ci­ers end up in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, in some respects that’s the prob­lem. Har­vard busi­ness pro­fess­or Rakesh Khur­ana, with whom I dis­cussed these ques­tions at length, observes that most of GM’s top exec­ut­ives in recent dec­ades hailed from a fin­ance rather than an oper­a­tions back­ground. […] These exec­ut­ives were fre­quently numb to the sorts of innov­a­tions that enable high-qual­ity pro­duc­tion at low cost.

[…] In their land­mark Har­vard Busi­ness Review art­icle from 1980, “Man­aging Our Way to Eco­nom­ic Decline,” Robert Hayes and Wil­li­am Abernathy poin­ted out that the con­glom­er­ate struc­ture forced man­agers to think of their firms as a col­lec­tion of fin­an­cial assets, where the goal was to alloc­ate cap­it­al effi­ciently, rather than as makers of spe­cif­ic products, where the goal was to max­im­ize qual­ity and long-term mar­ket share.

via Arts and Let­ters Daily

I, Toaster and The Economies of Production

Doing away with the divi­sion of labour and most oth­er eco­nom­ies of pro­duc­tion, Thomas Thwaites’ Toast­er Pro­ject is an exper­i­ment to “build a toast­er, from scratch—beginning by min­ing the raw mater­i­als and end­ing with a product that Argos sells for only £3.99”.

Many have men­tioned this already (Jason Kot­tke, Tyler Cowen on Mar­gin Revolu­tion, Rad­ley Balko on Reas­on), but my favour­ite com­ment­ary on the pro­ject comes from The Fin­an­cial Times’ Tim Har­ford:

The mod­ern mar­ket eco­nomy is mind-bog­glingly com­plex, pro­du­cing bil­lions of products, many vastly more com­plex than a toast­er. The com­plex­ity of the soci­ety we have cre­ated for ourselves sur­rounds us so com­pletely that, instead of being diz­zied, we tend to take it for gran­ted.

Yet as we cel­eb­rate our good for­tune to be born at a time of such aston­ish­ing mater­i­al wealth, the toast­er should give us pause for thought. It is a sym­bol of the soph­ist­ic­a­tion of our world, but also a sym­bol of the obstacles that lie in wait for those who want to change it. Wheth­er attempt­ing to deal with cli­mate change, social depriva­tion, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment or health­care, improv­ing faults in such a com­plex sys­tem is a task best approached with humil­ity.

I believe it is oblig­at­ory at this point to men­tion Leonard Read’s 1958 essay, I, Pen­cil?

Exporting Poor Work Environments

After a long time of suc­cess­fully man­aging to avoid the blog, I even­tu­ally clicked this past week when I was sent Fake Steve Jobs’ reac­tion to the news that an employ­ee of Fox­conn, one of Apple’s Chinese ‘man­u­fac­tur­ing part­ners’, com­mit­ted sui­cide shortly after report­ing a miss­ing iPhone v4 pro­to­type.

We can­’t make these products in the United States. Nobody could afford to buy them if we did. And, frankly, the qual­ity would be about half what we get out of China. […]

We all know that there’s no fuck­ing way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refri­ger­at­ors and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re pay­ing for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and every­one gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused—what we’re talk­ing about here is our way of life. Our stand­ard of liv­ing. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of mil­lions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can­’t even begin to ima­gine them, people who will do any­thing to get a life that is a tiny bit bet­ter than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.

You know that, and I know that. Okay? Let’s just be hon­est here.

It reminds me some­what of Jared Dia­mond’s Col­lapse, spe­cific­ally where he dis­cusses how “[China and Japan con­serve their] own forests by export­ing defor­est­a­tion to oth­er coun­tries, sev­er­al of which (includ­ing Malay­sia, Pap­ua New Guinea, and Aus­tralia) have already reached or are on the road to cata­stroph­ic defor­est­a­tion” (emphas­is mine).

Now, are first world coun­tries like the U.S. and those of West­ern Europe not just export­ing poor work envir­on­ment stand­ards to the second world coun­tries of Indone­sia, Malay­sia and China (as a con­sequence of large-scale, inex­pens­ive man­u­fac­tur­ing that we no longer can/want to under­take)?