My new guitar

FeaturedMy new guitar

A completely non-professional post today!

Some of you may know that I played guitar (way) back in high school. I played just a little in college and have played only sporadically since then. A few years ago—thank you, midlife!—I picked up my acoustic and began plunking around again. It has been lots of fun. More on that in the future.

What I have not renewed is the electric guitar, which was my staple in high school. I sold my last electric in the mid-1990s, and have not owned one since. At the urging of some friends, I started shopping for a guitar several months ago, but could not convince myself to pull the trigger on something that expensive that I’m not sure I would even use.

Enter my interest in woodworking. A few months ago I happened upon the Ted Harlan Woodworking School, where I recently completed my first project. It turns out that Ted also offers guitar building classes. Can you say, irresistible? I thought you could.

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2″ African mahogany for the body and neck

Thursday night was the first of what will be about 25 sessions to complete an electric build. I hope to blog the entire process over the next several months. We are building a “Les Paul like” guitar with a mahogany body, curly maple top, and P-90 or humbucker pickups (I’m leaning toward humbuckers, but won’t have to commit for awhile). The shape will be similar but not identical to the Les Paul.

Thursday night we spent time talking about the process and then got right to work. The guitar body will consist of a mahogany back and curly maple top. The mahogany stock for the body and neck is 8/4 stock (2″ thick), which we will take down to 1 3/4″ and glue up for a two piece back. The curly maple stock that will become the tops is gorgeous (see photo).

We have two weeks off for Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I am shopping for pickups, tuners, and thinking about inlay for my fretboard. So many crucial decisions!

Until next time….

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Jointing mahogany stock for the two piece body.

Production Notes

  • 8/4 mahogany stock for the body and curly maple for the top (could use 4/4 for the top, since it will be 5/8″ thick).
  • Stock prep: Use bandsaw to rip first (7 1/4″ width), then face joint, edge joint, plane the opposite face, and rip to 7 1/8″, in that order. Width of body pieces at this point is 7 1/8″. (We’re aiming for 14″ after glue up of the two pieces and finishing.)
  • Face joint with the bow side up. Minimize rocking.
  • Edge joint with bandsaw side down such that top edge leans out, not bottom edge out. This allows hand pressure nearer the top of the fence rather than the bottom, for a safer jointing.
  • When planing, push second piece in immediately after the first to prevent rollers from resetting and sniping the piece again.

The Age of Excess Capacity

FeaturedThe Age of Excess Capacity

For the past several months I have been thinking about trends in the logistics industry and in the economy as a whole. The rate of innovation is so high right now that I have been unable to think categorically about it all. What I mean is, I would like to be able to see a news piece about a company with a great idea and think, “Right, that‘s another example of this.” My problem has been that I just haven’t been able to assemble a coherent list of “thises.” Today’s post is my attempt to define a “this” for the gig economy.

Before I get to my Organizing Principle, a personal story:  In 2004 I gave an INFORMS presentation that included a very unsatisfying conjecture I had worked unsuccessfully to prove for about three months. I was “sure” my method produced optimal solutions, and had worked both to prove the result and to disprove it by counterexample, all to no avail. Knowing the presentation would be attended by about thirty colleagues and Ph.D. students, I decided to make my claim (the conjecture) and then offer $100 to the first person who could disprove it. Assuming each person gave only 10 minutes of thought to it, I would get 5 hours of work and a proof (by counterexample) that my method was not optimal, all for $100—not bad; else, I would get the work for free.

After my talk, I was told that people were actively working on my problem in the elevator as they returned to their rooms. Alas, the next morning my friend Samir Amiouny produced a counterexample that led to a minor modification of my algorithm, which then produced his solution as well. Without knowing it, I had just used “the crowd” to solve a knotty technical problem.

I didn’t think in these terms at the time, but my experiment was successful because it tapped into the otherwise unused intellectual capacity of my audience. Had they not been given a nice little problem to think about, my audience might have left the presentation and engaged in something unproductive like small talk or going to coffee—instead of, you know, working on my problem! The experiment was also successful because the seminar itself served as a coordinating mechanism that gave a common understanding of the task and established the rules. Finally, I had offered them an incentive to work voluntarily on my problem, thereby selecting from the audience the most willing and motivated problem solvers.

It is important to note that I probably did not attract the most capable problem solvers, only the most willing and motivated. Had I offered $100,000 instead of $100, I suspect I would have attracted the efforts of the entire group, including the most capable problem solvers. The level of reward determines the capability of the talent pool.

And now to the gig economy at large. I might be the last to realize this, but it seems that the Organizing Principle around gig economy businesses is something like this:

Find excess capacity in resources, organizations, systems, and individuals and then create a coordinating mechanism that allows providers, for a price, to offer their capacity voluntarily and spontaneously.

In other words, there is a lot of excess capacity out there, if people and organizations are willing to make it available. We have entered The Age of Excess Capacity, in which resources can be productive much more of the time. Why hasn’t this been done in the past? We have lacked the coordinating mechanisms, a void now filled by apps and mobile computing. Now, some examples of Excess Capacity Businesses.

Uber is the most famous example of an Excess Capacity Business. The genius behind Uber was the realization that empty seats (unused capacity) fill the highways and streets of every city in the world, and the drivers of some of those seats might be willing to volunteer them to people needing a ride. Why was this never done before? Before Uber, there was no coordinating mechanism between the drivers and potential customers, so customers could not participate; and there was no reward, so drivers had no incentive to participate. Note the key elements: a coordinating mechanism and a reward for providers.

AirBnB is also an Excess Capacity Business, based on the observation that an empty bedroom is “unused storage capacity” for people. Every day millions of people drive past empty residential bedrooms to pay $100 per night to stay in sterile hotel rooms. Enter a coordinating mechanism (AirBnB software) and a reward for the provider (rent), and presto—a billion dollar company.

Maketime is an Excess Capacity Business in manufacturing that attempts to match customers with idle machines (via software, the coordinating mechanism), giving manufacturers higher rates of utilization on their existing assets and therefore a higher rate of return (reward).

Co-creation in product development (e.g., FirstBuild) taps excess mental capacity of engineers, industrial designers, makers, and hobbyists. Think about how many brilliant people waste intellectual energy every night as they watch YouTube videos and play video games! FirstBuild offers the coordinating mechanism (co-creation software platform) and reward to its providers, who retain the IP on their inventions.

For all of these businesses, providers must be volunteers and able to withdraw their service spontaneously because, presumably, the asset was not purchased with a gig economy in mind. I didn’t buy a car so I could be an Uber driver, and I don’t have an extra bedroom so I can let it out on AirBnB. Some might choose to do these things, but the business models do not assume this is the case.

Now for some more interesting cases. What about parking lots, which are mostly empty? Should a shopping mall rent out portions of its parking lot at night to enable, say, real time crossdocking of freight in an urban environment? Doing so at night seems pretty safe, but what about during the day?

How about your garage? Why not build a company called AirDC that connects pallets with pallet positions in residential areas in real time? Think about the value of a highly distributed, virtual distribution center in downtown Atlanta. Just as Uber operates a taxi service without cars, AirDC would offer a distribution center with no building.

And my favorite: railroad tracks. What do you imagine is the utilization of an inch of railroad track? 0.001 percent? Surely we can do better!

To review: the unifying idea—the Organizing Principle—among all of these businesses is:

  • Recognition of unused capacity. Why is it just sitting there when others might be able to use it right now?
  • A coordinating mechanism, usually via software. Uber and AirBnB, for example, are software companies, not transportation or hotel companies. Why isn’t the resource being used right now? How can we connect potential users with idle resources?
  • Voluntary participation by providers. Unlike contracts, which bind seller and buyer, resources in an Excess Capacity Business can choose to enter or leave service at their leisure. By definition, they are offering marginal capacity, and therefore must be allowed to withdraw for a time, as, for example, when they are at full utilization (e.g., in-laws encroaching on your AirBnB cash flow).

In closing, I can’t help but note that the growth potential of an Excess Capacity Business is limited by…the amount of excess capacity! In these heady days of $60B Uber valuations (more than Ford and GM), let us not forget that Uber and its competitors are at the mercy of a public willing to spend its free time driving a cab around town. That pool is limited.

 

Logistics Automation and Us

FeaturedLogistics Automation and Us

Several years ago I began telling my children that I thought the greatest challenge for their generation was sensibly integrating technology into everyday life. It seemed at the time (and I continue to believe) that the blind adoption of rapidly advancing technology would have unknown and possibly deleterious effects on the human condition. Sounds like the subject for a nice book, eh? Alas, Nicholas Carr has beaten me to it with The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. The Glass Cage: Automation and Us

While recognizing the industrial and social benefits of automation, Carr points out that our inventions no longer help us accomplish work, but rather do the work for us. If the work is mindless or backbreaking, so much the better, but technology now threatens to rob us of many of the experiences that make us human. As I have written elsewhere, this point really resonates with me. I am reminded of a rhetorical question posed by a friend several years ago: “Why do I have to remember anything, when I can just look it up?” That is a serious question. The answer, of course, is that remembering—knowing—is a critical part of what makes us human. Machines look things up; humans know.

The challenge is to build technology that relieves man of the burden of work without robbing him of the satisfaction of work. Here Carr gives a huge shout out to the human factors research community, which knows a great deal about the interaction of humans and their machines, but which Silicon Valley has little interest in accommodating if that means limiting what can be done (and how much money can be made). Utopia, we are told, is life without work, instructing BeerBot to fetch us a cold one while we lie on the couch watching Netflix. Come to think of it, why can’t BeerBot just anticipate that I need a cold one!

Baxter the Robot
Baxter the robot. Source: BBC News, which included the funny caption “Baxter can work happily alongside human co-workers.” We ask, can humans work happily alongside Baxter?

Back in the industrial world, automation has changed laborers and craftsmen into button pushers and monitors—caretakers making sure nothing goes wrong. But as Carr points out, automation is not just a threat to the blue collar workforce. White collar jobs that involve design, analysis and decision making are very much in the cross hairs. If corporations are willing to replace workers with robots, why would they hesitate to replace a multitude of managers with Mr. Algorithm? They won’t.

The effect of technology on employment is neither the point of Carr’s book nor the point of this post. I am more interested in the effect of (logistics) technology on us. Is the logistics industry developing machines and devices that improve the human condition, or is it developing machines and devices that improve ROI? Are these objectives mutually exclusive? Must they be?

What is really interesting to me is the prospect that, in an environment of scarce labor resources, companies that developed and implemented human-centric work environments with “human optimized automation”—perhaps at a higher cost—might have the last laugh. What exactly “human optimized automation” looks like is still an open question, but I am sure it doesn’t look like a row of buttons and toggle switches. Here’s hoping that Carr’s book gets a wide reading in our industry, and that suppliers and end-users in the logistics industry find a way to develop automation that serves rather than dehumanizes us.

Moving to Louisville

Moving to Louisville

I am pleased to announce that in August I will join the industrial engineering faculty at the University of Louisville as Director of the Logistics and Distribution Institute (LoDI).

UofLouisvilleMinervaSeal

My time at Auburn University has been a delight in so many ways. I would like publicly to thank my colleagues here—Jeff, Chase, Rob, Jerry, Rich, Sean, Chan, J, Saeed, Fadel, LuAnn, Jorge, John, Tom—and especially Alice Smith who first invited me for a “look see” in 2003. That she could lure me away from Monterey, California says much about Auburn and much about her sales skills! Many thanks to you all for 10 rich years of professional growth and personal friendships.

I also thank Tim Cook for his generous professorship, which I have held for the past four years. The association has been an honor indeed.

The relationships and the work have been satisfying here, but I have been looking for a “next big opportunity” for a few years. The opportunity at UofL also works well for our family.

I will have much more to say about Louisville in the near future. For now, War Eagle! And Go Cards!

Thoughts on Driverless Trucks

Below is a portion of the U.S. Roadmap for Material Handling and Logistics I wrote on the potential impact of driverless or self-driving vehicles on the logistics industry. To see and comment on the entire Roadmap, please go here.

Wildcard: Motor Freight Transport with Driverless Vehicles

The driverless vehicle is here, and the implications are huge. We have labeled this topic a “wildcard” because it is surrounded by so much uncertainty. There is little doubt about the technology—driverless cars have been built and tested, and licensed cars are driving the streets of Nevada, California, and Florida. Google’s self-driving cars have already logged more than 400,000 miles. Whether and how these vehicles will be integrated into our national system of transportation is another question entirely.Volvo Driverless Truck Concept

First, some definitions. The term “driverless car” has come to refer to a vehicle that navigates itself between locations in the presence of ordinary cars and other driverless cars—akin to “auto pilot” in airplanes. Whether or not the car has a driver onboard is a separate question. In the same way that an airplane on auto pilot is flying itself with a pilot onboard, a “driverless car” might be driving itself with a driver onboard. Thus, we must make a distinction between a self-driving car that has a passenger/driver onboard and a driverless car that does not.

The issues surrounding self-driving and driverless vehicles are many: Will society accept the self-driving car? Will it accept the driverless car? If so, will self-driving and driverless trucks be allowed? If the latter, will special lanes be required? What will be the coverage of those lanes? Major interstates only? U.S. Highways? Will driverless trucks be allowed to make commercial and residential deliveries, or will they be restricted to long haul transportation between hubs? The answers to these questions will determine the implications of driverless technology on the material handling and logistics industry.

A likely scenario is that self-driving cars will be operating in normal traffic by 2025, but that those cars will be required to have a licensed driver onboard. It is likely that self-driving will be allowed only on certain roads (interstates, open highways, etc.), and perhaps only at certain times of day. We assume that the same rules will apply to trucks as to cars.

Implications for Logistics Systems

If we are right, the implications for logistics systems will be fairly modest.

  • Trucks will still have to have licensed drivers, failing to ease the truck driver labor problem. It is possible, however, that attending a self-driving truck would be less arduous than traditional truck driving, and that driver retention would improve.
  • Truck drivers are likely to require the same level of qualification, so the labor cost of transportation is likely to stay the same.
  • Assuming attending drivers will have to be awake, established work-rest rules for truckers will remain intact, and the geographical reach of “a day’s drive” will be approximately the same.

Some benefits will arise, however:

  • Self-driving and driverless cars and trucks are able to respond more quickly to dynamic driving conditions, which allows vehicles to follow one another more closely. This would have the effect of reducing traffic congestion, due to “tighter convoys” and increased density of flow.
  • Self-driving trucks would not tire or get sleepy, so traffic accidents involving trucks likely would decrease significantly.

In the less-likely case that society accepts truly driverless trucks, the implications for logistics systems and the economy are profound:

  • The truck driver labor crisis would (eventually) be averted, as retiring truck drivers are replaced by technology.
  • Trucks would be able to drive around the clock, thereby extending the reach of a day of transportation and improving logistics service.
  • Extending the geographical reach of a truck would eventually reduce the number of needed warehouses, because the same level of service (in days to deliver) could be provided by fewer, larger warehouses. Companies nationwide would have an incentive to redesign their supply chain networks.
  • Finally, the total cost of transportation likely would go down, thus reducing the total landed cost of products on shelves and effectively pumping more money into the economy.