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OM in the News: GE’s Engines and Additive Manufacturing

April 18, 2015
The GE90 is a family of turbofan engines built for the Boeing 777 long range wide-body aircraft

The GE90 is a family of turbofan engines built for the Boeing 777 long range wide-body aircraft

I don’t often share articles from American Machinist, but this one on General Electric’s development of a new generation of jet engines (April 15, 2015) struck close to home. My 2nd job out of college was at this very plant near Cincinnati, where I worked as a designer for the massive CF-6 engine, back in the early 1970s. (My 1st job was actually as an engineer at McDonnell Douglas, in St. Louis, on the design team for the DC-10–which used the CF-6).

Now, 45 years later, GE reports that its GE90 will be the first of its commercial jet engines to be manufactured with a housing component produced by additive manufacturing. The GE90, the world’s largest turbofan engine, was the first jet engine to incorporate composite fiber polymeric material on its front fan blades when it was introduced 20 years ago. Additive manufacturing is quickly gaining acceptance in jet engine production, for its design flexibility, material selection, and production cost advantages.

The term refers to various production methods, including stereolithography for polymer materials. GE is using laser-powered 3-D printers, 3-D “inking” and “painting” machines, and other advanced manufacturing tools, to make parts and products that were thought impossible to produce and which sometimes verge on art. It has also been in the forefront of companies adopting additive manufacturing for high-volume production. “Additive manufacturing has allowed GE engineers to quickly change the geometry through rapid prototyping and producing production parts, saving months of traditional cycle time without impacting capabilities,” says the GE program manager.

GE’s production rates for jet engines and components are setting new records for volumes: Its total backlog for jet engines exceeds 15,000 units, representing more than $135 billion for equipment and services.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. What is additive manufacturing and why is it important to GE?

2. What is stereolithography?

OM in the News: Blue Jeans and Sustainability

April 17, 2015

jeans“The four-year drought in California is hurting more than just farmers,” reports The Wall Street Journal (April 10, 2015). It is also having a significant impact on the fashion industry and spurring changes in how jeans are made and how they should be laundered. Southern California is estimated to be the world’s largest supplier of so-called premium denim, the $100 to $200-plus-a-pair of designer jeans. Water is a key component in the various steps of the processing and repeated washing with stones, or bleaching and dyeing that create that “distressed” vintage look. Southern California produces 75% of the high-end denim in the U.S. that is sold world-wide. The area employs about 200,000 people, making it the largest U.S. fashion manufacturing hub.

Now that water conservation is a global priority, major denim brands are working to cut water use. Levi, with sales of $5 billion, is using ozone machines to replace the bleach traditionally used to lighten denim. It is also reducing the number of times it washes jeans. The company has saved more than a billion liters of water since 2011 with its Levi’s Water Less campaign. By 2020, the company plans to have 80% of Levi’s brand products made using the Water Less process, up from about 25% currently.

Traditionally, about 34 liters of water are used in the cutting, sewing and finishing process to make a pair of Levi’s signature 501 jeans. Nearly 3,800 liters of water are used throughout the lifetime of a pair of Levi’s 501. A study found cotton cultivation represents 68% of that and consumer washing another 23%. So Levi is promoting the idea that jeans only need washing after 10 wears. (The average American consumer washes after 2 wears.) Levi’s CEO recently urged people to stop washing their jeans, saying he hadn’t washed his one-year-old jeans at the time. “You can air dry and spot clean instead,” he said.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why is sustainability a major issue in the fashion industry?
2. What else can manufacturers do to cut water usage and waste?

OM in the News: 3-D Printing Heads for the Moon and Mars

April 15, 2015
The European Space Agency's proposed moon colony to be built on site by a robotic 3-D printer using lunar dust as ink

The European Space Agency’s proposed moon colony to be built on site by a robotic 3-D printer using lunar dust as ink

Dutch television producers chose 100 contestants in February to vie for a one-way trip to Mars. If all goes as advertised, winners might be landing there sometime in 2027. They’ll quickly need permanent shelter. The nearest Home Depot will be 140 million miles away. The only readily available construction material on Mars is sand.

That might be all they need if a plan by NASA works out, reports The Wall Street Journal (April 13, 2015). NASA is experimenting with a 3-D printer that would make bricks suitable for airtight buildings and radiation-proof shelters using the grit that blows across Mars’s red surface. In Huntsville, NASA’s 3-D printer is starting to print curved walls and other structures using imitation Martian sand as an ink.

And engineers at the European Space Agency (ESA) are exploring ways to use lunar dust as an ink to print out an entire moon base. On a recent trial run, ESA used a 3-D stereo-lithography printing process that can print objects up to 19 feet long on each side. They mixed simulated lunar dust with magnesium oxide and printed out stone-like building blocks weighing one-and-a-half tons each. That could reduce the need to launch raw materials into orbit at a cost of thousands of dollars per pound. “It would be economically impossible to send all these bricks from Earth to the Moon,” said an engineer at ESA.

And if astronauts ever do reach Mars, they may survive the journey by eating pizza made with a 3-D-printed food system for long duration space missions. Aboard the international space station last December, one astronaut printed out a ratchet wrench—the first tool to be printed in orbit. Typically, an astronaut might have to wait a year or more for a new tool to be shipped into orbit. In all, the crew printed 25 experimental parts.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Will 3-D printing revolutionize space travel?

2. How can this technology be used by operations managers on earth?



OM in the News: Stuck in Seattle With Big Bertha

April 13, 2015
Inside the Seattle tunnel last year

Inside the Seattle tunnel last year

Megaprojects almost always fall short of their promises—costing too much, delivering underwhelming benefits, or both, reports BusinessWeek (April 6-12, 2015). Yet from the London-­Paris Chunnel to Boston’s Big Dig, cities still fall for them, seduced by new technologies and the lure of the perfect fix.

Back in Seattle, everything about the new project to build a tunnelled roadway though the heart of the city is gargantuan, starting with the underground drilling machine called Bertha. Bertha is as tall as a 5-story building. Her job is to bury a highway that runs on a structurally unsound elevated road smack in the middle of an earthquake zone. The viaduct, as it’s called, follows the shoreline, effectively barricading downtown Seattle from what could be a beautiful waterfront. Bertha runs on a 25,000-horsepower motor and has a head weighing 1.7 million pounds, with 260 steel teeth designed specifically to chew through Seattle’s silty soil.

But Bertha broke abruptly in December 2013 after boring through just 1,000 feet, a small portion of her job. Her seals busted, and her teeth clogged with grit and pieces of an 8-inch steel pipe left over from old groundwater tests. She stopped entirely. Now the tunnel, with a budget of $1.4 billion and originally scheduled to be finished in November 2015, is 2 years behind schedule. The contractor has spent months digging to reach Bertha and crane her to the surface, where a weary Seattle awaits. After Bertha got stuck, she couldn’t back up because she builds the concrete walls of the tunnel as she drills forward.

Bertha may be a lemon, but there is no Plan B. The state and the contractor say they’re not abandoning ship. Bertha has become too big to fail. Nine times out of 10, though, massive infrastructure jobs go over budget. Tunnels on average cost 34% more than anticipated. No country or state is any better at predicting costs, and over the past 70 years, less than half of the world’s megaprojects have delivered their promised monetary benefit.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why do large projects tend to run late and over budget?

2. What tools in Chapter 3 can be used to control projects better?

OM in the News: Hunger for Organic Foods Stretches Supply Chains

April 10, 2015

organicLast year, organic cereal maker Nature’s Path Foods grew so frustrated with organic-grain shortfalls that it took a radical step: It bought a farm. In this example of backward integration, the Canadian company plunked down $2 million for 2,800 acres of Montana cropland. Its goal was to seize greater control of its supplies of wheat, oats and other ingredients. Nature’s Path is among a number of organic-food purveyors taking steps to tackle supply constraints that are hampering the growth of one of the hottest food categories, reports The Wall Street Journal (April 3, 2015). Companies including soup maker Pacific Foods and burrito chain Chipotle are digging deeper into the supply chain with such moves as financing farmers, offering technical training and hiring headhunters to recruit organic growers.

The efforts are aimed at ramping up organic-food output that has failed to keep pace with surging consumer demand, due in part to the significant costs and risks that farmers face in converting from conventional to organic farming.  High land costs, for example, make starting an organic farm expensive, and switching to one is onerous. Conventional cropland and dairies can become certified as organic after a 1-3-year transition period in which farmers eschew pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and synthetic fertilizers and hormones. Organic farmers also have greater trouble securing bank loans, and organic crops don’t have forward or options markets, which ease the risks of wide swings in prices for many conventional farmers.

Nature’s Path began wrestling with acute supply shortages in the late 2000s that forced it to import some ingredients on short notice from Sweden, driving up its costs. It plans to dedicate at least $2 million each year to purchase additional conventional farmland that it can then convert to organic production in order to fill 1/4 of its grain needs over the next decade. Two years ago, Chipotle, which said it seeks to purchase as many organic ingredients as practical, began providing financial incentives to help farmers of black beans transition from conventional to organic production. Pacific Foods, worried its organic chicken supply could run short, started building its own chicken-raising sheds.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. What is backward integration– give other examples of it in industry.

2. Why is the organic food industry more complex than conventional production?

OM in the News: It’s Ikea’s World

April 8, 2015
 At Ikea’s distribution center in Älmhult, Sweden, pallets are stacked and retrieved through a fully automated process.

At Ikea’s distribution center in Älmhult, Sweden, pallets are stacked and retrieved through a fully automated process.

In a stunning global expansion, the Swedish home furnishings giant has been quietly planting its blue and yellow flag in places you’d never expect. “Pay attention, Wal-Mart:” writes Fortune (April 6, 2015),  “You could learn a few things.” Ikea, it seems, is a genius at selling Ikea—flat packing, transporting, and reassembling its quirky Swedish styling all across the planet. The furniture and furnishings brand is in more countries than Wal-Mart, Carrefour, and Toys “R” Us.

In an industry where the product is often passed down from generation to generation, Ikea has shaken up the paradigm. It kept its prices down with an obsessive focus on costs. It might skip an extra coating of lacquer on the underside of a table that people never see or use. The company has also stripped out as much labor as possible from the system, pushing tasks that were once done by traditional retailers onto the customer. Flat packed furniture made it easier for customers to take purchases with them, cutting out the expense of stocking and delivery. (Ikea figured out flat packing in 1956, when a designer took the legs off a Lövet table to get it in his trunk.) The magic of flat packing allows goods to be jammed into shipping containers without wasting any space. Wasted space means wasted money and is also environmentally unfriendly. “I hate air,” says Ikea’s head of packaging.

The firm’s success, in large part, is based on improving its product design. As much as it has doubled down on market research and logistics, Ikea has been relentless in its focus on design. Ikea comes up with some 2,000 new products every year. Products under development go through rapid prototyping in the pattern shop to provide a sense of what they will actually look like in the flesh. During Fortune’s visit, one of the four 3-D printers was outputting a toilet brush. If air is the enemy in shipping, it is the ally in design. “The more air in our products, the better,” says Ikea.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. What operations strategies are key to Ikea’s success?

2. How pleased are students who have had to assemble the products themselves?

OM in the News: Troubleshooting Intel’s Supply Chain in the Congo

April 6, 2015

congo minesAmerican manufacturers have for years been under pressure from Congress to avoid buying “rare earths” and minerals from rebel held mines in the Congo. Government commanders and rebel ­militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo earn about $185 million annually through the illicit trade of gold and so-called 3T minerals (tin, tantalum, and tungsten)—crucial ­elements in consumer electronics such as cell phones and tablets. The revenue has financed a brutal ongoing conflict resulting in the deaths of millions of innocent people. Intel no longer wanted to contribute to an economy of suffering. Just recently, reports FastCompany (April, 2015), Intel became the first company to build microprocessors entirely from conflict-free minerals.

But controlling the supply chain process at Intel was not at all simple. Identifying how conflict minerals entered its supply chain was key to eliminating them. Smelting plants, where raw ore is refined, offered one place to trace the origin of minerals, if only the facilities would comply with a transparent auditing process.

Over five years, Intel’s supply chain director, Carolyn Duran, and her team visited 91 smelters in 21 countries, using Intel’s purchasing power to put pressure on smelters to develop and implement an auditing system to track minerals so corporate buyers can source responsibly. The result: Nearly half the world’s 3T and gold smelters have now passed conflict-free audits, shrinking the market for illegally traded minerals and reducing warlords’ profits. Intel hopes to be able to declare its entire product line conflict-free by 2016, inspiring other firms to do the same.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why are rare earths critical to the supply chain and which countries supply them?

2. Why did Intel try to set this precedent?

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