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Video Tip: Innovation and Ingenuity at Work

December 24, 2017

“Three decades ago,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 27, 2017), “a historian wrote several laws to explain society’s unease with the power and pervasiveness of technology“. Though based on historical examples taken from the Cold War, the laws read as a cheat sheet for explaining our era of Facebook, Google, and the iPhone. You’ve probably never heard of these principles.

1. ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’. For example, DDT, a pesticide and probable carcinogen that nonetheless saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in India as a cheap and effective malaria prevention. Today, we can see how one technology, Facebook groups, can serve as a lifeline for parents of children with rare diseases while also radicalizing political extremists.

2. ‘Invention is the mother of necessity.’ In our modern world, the invention of the smartphone has led to the necessity for countless other technologies, from phone cases to 5G wireless. Here is a great 2 minute video to show your class to prove the point.

3. ‘Technology comes in packages, big and small. Steel, oil and rail were the package of technologies that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in America, just as the internet, mobile phones and wireless connectivity are transforming the 21st century.

4. ‘All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.’ The Cold War led to the buildup of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them anywhere on Earth. That led to the development of a war-proof communication system: the internet. Many related innovations subsequently seeped into every aspect of our lives.

5. ‘Technology is a very human activity.’ “Technology is capable of doing great things,” Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said. “But it doesn’t want to do great things—it doesn’t want anything. The point is that despite its power, how we use technology is up to us”.


Good OM Reading: Will 375 Million Jobs Be Automated by 2030?

December 21, 2017

A new McKinsey Global Initiative report cautions that as many as 375 million workers will need to switch occupational categories by 2030 due to automation. The work most at risk of automation includes physical jobs in predictable environments, such as operating machinery or preparing fast food. Data collection and processing is also in the crosshairs, with implications for mortgage origination, paralegals, accounts and back-office processing.

To remain viable, workers must embrace retraining in different fields. “The model where people go to school for the first 20 years of life and work for the next 40 or 50 years is broken,” states the report. “We’re going to have to think about learning and training throughout the course of your career.”

McKinsey believes we may see a massive transition on a scale not seen since the early 1900s, when workers shifted from farms to factories. A needed plan would include a big investment from the private and public sectors in new training programs and workforce transition programs.

Despite the looming challenges, the report revealed how workers can move forward. While the introduction of PCs in the 1980s eliminated some jobs, it created many more roles. Workers who are willing to develop new skills should be able to find new jobs. “The dire predictions that robots are taking our jobs are overblown. Yes, work will be automated, but there will be enough jobs for everyone in most areas,” McKinsey writes. The company adds that automation will not displace jobs involving managing people, social interactions or applying expertise. Gardeners, plumbers, child and elder-care workers are among those not facing risk.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What do your students think about the concept of career-long training and learning?
  2. How does this change impact the field of OM?

Guest Post: Teaching and Blogging Supply Chain and Operations at Niagara University

December 18, 2017

Our Guest Post today comes from Dr. Victor Pimentel, who is Assistant Professor of Operations Management at Niagara University. Here he is with his OM students.

Students usually describe Operations classes as tedious, even frustrating. They have a hard time relating the material covered in class with the real world. That is why it is critical for me as a professor to find the right tools to not only engage my students, but to encourage them to pursue a career in the field.

Jay, Barry and Chuck’s OM Blog, has proven to be critical for my early success as a prof at Niagara University. The blog not only bridges the gap between theory and practice, but also encourages my students to read articles, which look at everyday events with a more analytical view.

As part of my class, I require my students to read one article per week, with the article relating to the topic at hand. Then every Friday we take fifteen minutes to discuss it and take a short quiz. The first couple of weeks, I was impressed with how much they enjoyed the readings, which not only clarified why we covered some of the material in class, but also little by little sparked interest in the field. My students have described the articles as “Quick and to the point,” “Interesting,” “Current” and my personal favorite “Understandable, not pretentious.”

The Blog has already affected my student’s tremendously. As an example, while one of my former students was being interview by a multinational bread company, he cited the “Self-Driving Truck Makes a Beer Run” article as an example of how supply chains evolve and how future supply chains will look. He emphasized how much he wanted to be in the front lines as an active participant of this revolution. To nobody’s surprise, he received not one but three job offers from different divisions.

Thanks Jay, Barry and Chuck for making my class so much more rewarding.

MyOMLab: New Features for Spring 2018 Semester

December 16, 2017

Here are some of the features we have just added to MyOMLab (click here for details):

A Tool to Deepen Student Learning. With the December 2017 release, you now have an additional way to assess their students by creating short-answer essay questions in homework assignments. These short-answer essay questions allow students to demonstrate their critical thinking, reasoning, and decision making skills. They are flagged for manual grading.

Replace Questions in Assignments with Results. After assignments are given, and students have started working, you may sometimes find the need to edit the assignment. Prior, you have had the ability to remove questions after students have submitted results. With the December release, you now can replace questions after results have been submitted. Simply select the question you wish to remove from the assignment and replace from available questions.

LMS Grade Sync Following Student Results. The new release enables you to change LMS grade sync settings for individual assignments after students have submitted results. This enhancement, being moved to the Change Weights & Grade Sync Settings page, will make it easier for you to manage LMS grade sync settings.

Our eText is now available on Mobile Phones. The update offers enhancements to the eText to provide a more mobile-friendly and accessible experience for students. They can access eText and read how they want: anytime, anywhere, even offline. Students can also ● Track exactly what they need to study by creating notes and highlights ● Learn with interactive images, videos, and animations (available with select titles) ● Search for content.

New “Date Started” Column in Student Results.  Instructors now have insight into when each student began working on assignments.

OM in the News: The U.S. Productivity Picture–Good or Bad?

December 13, 2017

“Perhaps 2018 will be the year productivity finally begins to pick up,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Dec.12, 2017). Technologies such as speech recognition, online chatbots and machine learning are being quickly adopted, capital spending is up, and tight labor markets give companies an incentive to find better ways of working. But productivity defies forecasters, who have wrongly predicted an uptick in productivity for over a decade. The real story is how little anyone really understands about what moves productivity, even though as we write in Chapter 1: “Only through increases in productivity can the standard of living improve.”

The basics are in Equation (1-1): Labor productivity is real economic output divided by the numbers of hours worked. How many gingerbread lattes can each Starbucks barista churn out per hour? Give them a better machine or better training and the productivity rises. Economists say it is years of weak corporate investment, a dire education system, an aging workforce, and a shift from high-productivity manufacturing to low-productivity service sector that have made productivity worse.

The first half of the 1990s had a “productivity paradox” of technological change being highly visible, but not showing up in the economic data. Just as with the past decade’s development of smartphones, apps, financial technology and machine learning, it took time for laptops and PCs to increase output. It happened suddenly, with productivity leaping 2.5% in 1996 and growing that fast on average over the next decade.

So a big problem for forecasters is that technological change comes in unpredictable waves. In the long run productivity is all about innovation. But productivity did leap 3% in the 3rd quarter of this year, and while quarterly data are volatile, it is plausible that a productivity pickup is coming soon. A lesson many economists take from the past 10 years is that productivity has permanently slowed. Perhaps a better lesson is just that it is hard to forecast.

Classroom discussion questions:
1. Why is the productivity rate important to ordinary people around the world?

2. Why is productivity important to operations managers?


OM in the News: Wal-Mart Cracks the Code for Online Groceries in China

December 10, 2017

An employee fills electronic orders for the 1-hour delivery platform at a Wal-Mart store in Shanghai

Amazon may have sent a chill through the U.S. supermarket business with its purchase of Whole Foods. But grocers also had better keep an eye on the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer—Wal-Mart Stores—for some lessons on the future of online grocery shopping. Wal-Mart has already developed a big online grocery delivery business in China, capable of transporting fresh produce from its shelves to homes within an hour.

To accomplish that feat, it’s created a network of chilled mini-warehouses, used A.I. to tailor inventories, and employed an army of crowdsourced deliverymen to rush meat, fruits, and vegetables to customers’ doorsteps. That could provide it with insight and experience to keep tech upstarts from disrupting it out of one of its core U.S. businesses.

Fresh food is considered the last frontier of Chinese e-commerce. “Wal-Mart’s efforts in China revolve around trying to tap into a smartphone, convenience-craving, population,” writes Businessweek (Dec. 4, 2017). 

At the heart of its operation are what it calls “dark stores” that stock 1,500 different products such as bananas, pork ribs, dumplings, and chicken feet. Workers grab printouts of the online orders, zip through the aisles placing items in a bag, and exit the other side, where they hit a button summoning a delivery driver. The drivers are independent contractors with cellphones and scooters. The time from picking up the order printout to hitting that button can’t exceed 10 minutes, or else the 1-hour delivery is in peril.

Shelves are stocked with products based on order patterns for the surrounding area—meaning a store in northern China may have more soup ingredients as winter comes. The company adjusts each store’s online inventory every 4 weeks, and the added information about fresh grocery demand from web orders helps boost the accuracy of Wal-Mart’s product forecasting for offline stores.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Is this online operation transferable to the U.S.?
  2. How does this approach differ from typical supermarket shopping?

OM in the News: The World’s Trash Used to Head to China

December 7, 2017

A scrap dealer in Hong Kong

Since the 1990s, the world has shipped its waste paper, discarded plastic and unwanted metals to China, where they are destined to be used as raw materials to help power the country’s export-driven manufacturing boom. In 2016, China imported about $18 billion worth of what the government calls solid waste.

But China doesn’t want to be the rest of the world’s trash can, writes The New York Times (Dec. 4, 2017). Over the summer, regulators in Beijing started an unusually intense crackdown on what they called “foreign garbage,” citing health and environmental concerns.

As with so much else in the global economy, China’s decision is rippling through a vast supply chain that stretches from big waste companies in Texas to the “cardboard grannies” in Hong Kong that pick through mounds of paper and plastic. Scrap dealers are rushing to find buyers elsewhere in Asia, but the Chinese market is so large that it cannot be easily replaced. “It’s almost like they turned the spigot off overnight,” said the president of Waste Management.

As China revved up its manufacturing machine to power growth over the years, officials were willing to tolerate some of the downside of scrap, namely the pollution of local soil and rivers by low-end recycling practices. But China’s economic might increasingly means that it no longer needs to make such environmental sacrifices.

In the U.S., the new rules mean more garbage could stay at home. While that could be good news for some recyclers, it could also mean more waste in the country’s landfills. Recyclers might also have to upgrade their facilities to handle the waste, leading to higher costs for American municipalities and taxpayers.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why is this an issue for operations managers?
  2. What should U.S. municipalities do the offset the impact?


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