Tag Archives: distribution

The Changing Way we Work & Live – part 3

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid...

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first in this series of posts looked at how technology advances are enabling location independence for people at work, and the second looked at some of the socio-economic impacts of this move. In fact, the changes are potentially even more widespread further into the future, as a recent MindBullets post discussed.

Essentially, what this post suggests is that in the next decade or so, a combination of 3D printing – that technology is already available, albeit in a somewhat rudimentary form still – and cheap robotics will render manufacturing as we know it obsolete.

What’s more, this combination of technologies will make the production lines of old irrelevant as we move to true user choice in every product. We all remember the early days of the mass produced car, when Henry Ford suggested that customers could have the Model T in any colour they liked, so long as it was black. Contrast that with today where the buyer has, literally thousands of combinations of colour, internal and external finish, engine and accessories available to make a vehicle unique, or at least highly individualized. In the future, there will be no limit to the choices available as each product will be built/printed to your exact specification.

The impacts of this are, of course, dramatic – imagine the impact on China if its low-cost manufacturing prowess is no longer needed as it is faster and cheaper to make items at/near the customer. What will the effect be on the economies of countries like China, Mexico and others where a largely unskilled labour force has provided economic growth through mass manufacturing? And what will the consequent ripple effects around the world be as a result?

What, too, will be the impact on the logistics and transportation industries if there is no longer the need for transporting all the freshly-made products around the world? Shipping, air, road and rail transport, and warehousing will all undergo massive changes and many companies that are household names will have to adapt radically or disappear.

The Amazon of the future, for example, instead of having huge warehouses filled with a multiplicity of product and a logistics operation predicting demand and ensuring, so far as is possible, just-in-time delivery from its vast range of suppliers, will have a series of printing/manufacturing modules and will create products to order in a matter of minutes – and the only transport needed is to the consumer. As prices of 3D printers continue to fall, imagine a world where these are in every home, negating even this ‘last mile’ transportation.

There will, of course, still be the need for some level of transportation – the raw materials for the 3D printers and robotic manufacturing operations, but this will be much less onerous than the transportation of today.

There is, of course, still one area that 3D printing and robotic manufacturing has not solved – organic material. This means that food – fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, fish and so on – will still, for the foreseeable future at least, need to be transported from the farms to consumers in some way. Here, too, we’re seeing huge change today as increasing numbers of consumers buy this online, bypassing the need for physical supermarkets and shops, and we’ll look at the effects of all this online shopping in the next part of this series.

There’s no question that the current advances in 3D printing and robotics will dramatically change the way products are made and delivered and the effects of this on companies and countries will be massive. Technology is really causing the pace of change to accelerate more and more quickly – the future just gets more and more interesting.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 8 April.

Can Europe Survive? Life after Katla…

Katla
Image via Wikipedia

The recent chaos surrounding the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland – with effects being felt globally in terms of significant financial losses, disruption to travellers, disruption to food supplies, and so on – needs to provoke some serious discussion as to what actions are needed to prevent even greater, and much longer-term, chaos in the event of a more significant eruption.

After all,  history has clearly shown that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, it’s very much larger neighbour Katla is generally not far behind, and Katla is overdue for an eruption anyway.

While the size of eruptions can never be accurately forecast, the historical evidence shows that Katla’s eruption is likely to be at least ten times the size of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption – and quite possibly more. This could mean not only significant floods of fresh glacial-melt water into the sea (a volume equal to the combined flow of the Amazon, Mississippi, Nile and Yangtze rivers is estimated to have occurred following its 1755 eruption), but a column of ash rising 20km, or more, into the jet stream and being spread over a much greater part of the Northern Hemisphere.

History has already shown some of the worst effects from major volcanic eruptions in Iceland – that of Laki in 1783 resulted in famine across Western Europe, and as far south as Egypt, one of the longest and coldest winters on record in North America, and the death of tens of thousands of people from gas poisoning and famine. It was even linked to the start of the French Revolution, where the lack of food played a significant role.

Admittedly, these are somewhat extreme examples, but they show what is possible should Katla’s eruption be a big one – and almost all experts agree that with Katla, it’s not a question of “if” but of “when” it will erupt.

So, what are some of the possible effects of a big Katla eruption?

  • Air travel – the recent 6-day chaos would potentially be dwarfed by one that could last months. This would not only impact passengers, but freight, too. Tourism would certainly be impacted negatively, but so would food imports and general freight movement.
  • Agriculture – the impact of a prolonged cold spell would drastically affect crop production in Europe and, potentially, elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. For Europe, this would just add to the difficulties faced by the lack of air transport to bring in fresh produce from elsewhere.
  • Power – of course, a lengthy period of exceptionally cold weather would push up power consumption dramatically. Could Europe cope with a prolonged extra demand for power for heating?
  • Wealth – potentially a significant shift in the wealth of Europe as the combination of food shortages, collapsing tourism, freight reduction and prolonged cold takes its toll. Where would this wealth go, and who would benefit?

Disturbingly, though, little attention seems to being paid to this, in spite of the lessons we’ve learnt from Eyjafjallajökull. And if it’s not Katla, how long before another significant eruption – perhaps in Iceland, or perhaps elsewhere (Yellowstone?)…

European, and other, governments need to get together as a matter of urgency on this: the planning for overcoming the potential problems is not something that can be done overnight in a reactive manner. Rather, they need to start work today on ways to reduce the reliance on current modes of air transport (could the airship make a comeback?), to find additional reliable power sources, determine ways to source sufficient food, and so on.

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Putting a Spring into Business Models

Are we thinking wrongly about business models and, for that matter, about the models that apply to many other activities, too?

While most of us think in linear terms, we respond to stimuli in a very non-linear way and this is why our models fail us.

A good example is that of traffic – the way it bunches up and stretches out as drivers slow and speed up, with each reacting to the vehicle in front – it’s much more like a spring or elastic band being stretched and let go, than linear.

Look at how consumers react to shortages of items. It really is much the same – an impending shortage leads to people purchasing a little more to tide them over, while a stock-out position either leads to brand switching or to buying extra once the item is back in stock, so the consumer doesn’t run out again. This, of course, means demand that follow a wave pattern, rather than a straight line.

However, every inventory-ordering system I’ve seen works in a linear fashion, leading to inevitable periods of over-stock after a shortage and accelerated stock-out if an impending shortage is discerned.

Doesn’t this equally apply to investors? Think about how the stock market reacts to news – it almost always over-reacts, whether positively or negatively, and then settles down. Again, although, we expect a “rational” (read: linear) response and our models are built in this way, the actual pattern of prices is anything but linear.

I have little doubt that it is this that leads to huge market “melt-downs” as automatic sales are triggered in response to the over-reaction to an event which leads to more automatic sales, and so on. Look at global stock markets early this year – do we honestly believe that the total value of companies was half (or less) what it had been six or seven months earlier? There’s no question they were worth less as earnings were impaired, but were they really worth so much less? The answer might be found in the big increase in share prices from March – perhaps it wasn’t a bull market as some were calling, but simply a correction to the over-reaction during the last half of last year, and things seem now to have stabilised. At least until the next piece of news…

The answer, it seems to me, is to rework our models to allow for human response to situations: the inevitable over-reaction and consequent wave patterns in demand, share prices, traffic and just about everything else. By allowing for this sort of response and predicting the effects, we can dampen them in the same way that a car’s shock absorbers dampen the effect of a bump on the suspension/springs.

The Perils of ‘Quarteritis’

FT ringing the Closing Bell at the NYSE

FT ringing the Closing Bell at the NYSE (Photo credit: Financial Times photos)

It appears that one potentially good thing to emerge from the global economic meltdown is a return to sensible business planning and cycles.

One of the scourges of many businesses – this started in the US and spread out from there – is ‘Quarteritis.’ Not strictly speaking a disease, but something that has probably resulted in a lot more suffering than most diseases, ‘Quarteritis’ is about an overarching focus on ensuring each quarter’s financial results are significantly better than those of the quarters that went before.

While we all want to be part of, and invest in, businesses that have good growth, the fact is that business, like most things in life, moves in cycles and the best long-term businesses are those that plan for the long-term, not just the next quarter. A short-term focus leads to rash decisions, decisions that might be good to “save this quarter” but disastrous in the medium term.

To illustrate: in the IT industry two popular results of this are distributors being forced to take huge amounts of excess inventory in a quarter (“channel stuffing”), or new distributors/resellers appointed suddenly to get a new stock order into the current cycle.

Both of these have similar results over succeeding quarters – reduced profitability for all concerned, stretched payment terms, credit limit issues meaning needed products cannot be ordered and, potentially, delays in releasing new products while excess inventory is moved out of the channel.

By taking the longer-term approach to ensuring that all parties in the channel can grow profitably, vendors may not grow as quickly in the short-term but will ensure happier customers – at all levels in the supply chain – and so more loyalty and a more sustainable growth well into the future.

Wasn’t it this short-term focus – albeit in the financial markets this time – that ultimately caused the current crash? Executives and others were induced by means of massive bonuses to find ways to grow well above the market average and so started giving mortgages to those that could never afford them, and repackaging these as “high quality” loans. Frankly, this would have been considered fraudulent in many places – it’s certainly ethically very bad anywhere – and it was only a matter of time before implosion happened.

However, those involved had already taken their money and run… Isn’t it this short-term bonus-driven culture that’s behind the trend to shorter and shorter tenure by CEOs of public companies? Can CEOs really be effective when they’re only in place for a few years?

It’s time we started looking at the longer term sustainability of business, and rewarding people in ways that encourage this and I, for one, am pleased to see a number of governments leaning in this direction. Authorities and shareholders should claw back bonuses paid for fraudulent practice, especially when taxpayers have to bail out the companies as a result. CEOs, and other officers, should be rewarded, and lauded, for long tenure and sustained growth.

Business needs to get back to a solid footing and good practice – we should support those that are trying to move in this direction.

Amazon

Amazon (Photo credit: topgold)

This blog piece was first published in Sep 2009, so it’s good to see that there’s growing acceptance of the need to look longer-term as this video from INSEAD clearly points out – Prof. Javier Gimeno talking about how “short-termism” undermines a company’s long-term competitiveness.