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 elite 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)?