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Rethinking Production Systems

The Impossible makes you Think

In the early eighties I got confronted with a desire to build a CPU based gift that had to run for a year on 4 AA batteries. A quick calculation revealed that my desire was off by 100,000% with the reality of the available standard components. The CPU needed 1000 times more energy than the average available.

So what do you do? You re-asses your assumptions

Did the gift had to be powered continuously?. The answer was yes and no. The display with some logic had to be running all the time, luckily that part needed very little current. And the CPU could be shut down as in average it only needed about 1/000 of second running software every second . So the resolution was simple shut off the CPU most of the time and restart it every 0.5 second, to achive a sufficient smooth response. A mechanism that is pretty normal these days in portable electronics. While a part of the electronics was powered all the time, the power consuming CPU had to be isolated properly to avoid leakage currents through the CPU. Those leakage current were initially so high that all available power was consumed. After a weekend of tinkering the leakage was down a factor of 20, so 5% of the available current was lost due to leakage, now leaving 95% for powering the CPU for a reduced time to satisfy the needed SW routines to do their job. 

In general it is stil possible to sell an initial idea that is off by 10- 50% of the state of practice as an realistic alternative , however when something is off as much as 100,000% it is in general seen as unrealistic, keep dreaming on :-) . The above low tech example however shows that there are probably more assumptions that could be outdated than we realize. Just think how little power your brains use to manage the same amount of data as the fastest super computer today, although the latter can do many data handling much faster, you can however still not reason with it. So there must be a way to reduce the power consumption reasoned kwabena Boahen and that motivated him to work on research to develop new ways of managing data (

What makes us, Humans, different?

Despite the amazing results humans have achieved, there are many species out there that run faster, can fly, swim better, handle more heat or cold, are much stronger, are more flexible etc.
So what sets us apart? We have evolving software and some firmware, which allows us to reorganize, while other species are limited by their firmware to play the role they always did or extinct. With that software we have been able to hide our weaknesses in those area by amplifying our capabilities with external energies and structures. In the developed world we have been able, to a large extend, to replace the need for our physical capabilities or mental repetition for daily production, as there was enough energy in a readily available form, while the developing world is starting to increase their energy usage to achieve the same benefits. The organization however has as a result become so complex that we do not recognize the amazing inefficiencies that we have built into the system any longer.

At one end we move certain production capacity far away as local human capacity is too expensive, but on the other hand we still pay more than 10 times of what it costs. And I’m sure the cost of the product isn’t composed for 100% of human labour, it is probably more like 20% and if that 20% can be done 100 times cheaper the total cannot be built more than 20% cheaper. In other words much more could be gained if the total system could be redesigned as there is often a high ratio between cost price to end-user price. The reality is that change is often built on top of existing mechanisms. And more often than not only the mechanisms are revised and only when disaster happens the whole system is subjected to scrutiny.

The Energy Cost

Although many years experts have been telling that the old way of harvesting energy is running out, in general it is not accepted as a reality, in the month of November the car sales numbers of the US showed that although the Toyota Prius had had the best incremental sales figures for months, that month it had the worst decremental sales figures. The ford F-150 was most successful simply because the energy prices had gone down, although absolutely below sustainability levels. Ripudaman Malhotra, Associate Director of the Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory at SRI International expressed the energy needs in Cubic Miles of Oil (CMO) and showed that when we continue using more energy like we have done we would need another 270 CMO by 2050 while from conventional resources we could likely only get about 85 CMO. Many resources can help e.g. 22,000 CMOs of renewable energy per year are delivered by the sun, so there isn’t an issue from a potential availability point of view. Unfortunately we have not given harvesting that energy enough priority. So redesigning the energy system must have the highest priority as it isn’t done overnight. As a result of that coming shortage, the transport cost we have in the system today, ranging from goods that need to cross the world and people that get daily stuck in traffic jams up to the environmental consequences, create an incentive to subject the energy and production system to scrutiny.

The Labor Cost

Our working model is for a part built on the acceptance that we “wear out” employees to such an extent, that they, while aging, become useless for the productivity process, while they still need money to live.  This means that the money to survive needs to be collected during the shorter active live by the individuasl upfront or by the active working community or a combination of both . When heavy physical activities were the norm and pensioners had only a couple of years to live in average after retirement, this worked from a numbers point of view pretty well. Today however the expectation has changed, so it makes sense to rethink how paying contributions can be redesigned that align with our capabilities over time. In my mind it makes sense to be able to contribute to society and be paid for that during your whole live, as babies and young kids we entertain the broad population (and are they willing to pay !), at puberty we break apart that isn’t well designed (not always appreciated) and as grown-ups we support the production system, while as pensioners we are not expected to add value anymore, so the last two steps should be redesigned.
That should not be equal to extending a rat race. Sustainability should not only be applied to energy and materials and food but also to human smarts. Having the capabilities to perform a lot of labor by using renewable energy combined with supporting structures, the question should be how we organize our smarts. So that we can harvest all ideas and allow them to be converted when needed into products as local as possible to avoid energy waist and avoid toxins in our environment. Such a system will require downscaling of production (nothing in nature has become successful by only scaling up). Often economy of scale is misinterpreted e.g. when it is very complicated and thus expensive to e.g.  move a laser over a layer of fabric to cut it, it is probably more efficient to use multiple layers of fabric to reduce the cost and produce many of the same item. If however this process due to innovation has become low in cost, it could be that individual cutting of fabric to be cheaper and so allowing custom made fashion at whole sale prices. Even going one step further, what if the fabric could be manufactured into the individual shape without cutting?

Redesigning the System

Several businesses have been able to find production methods where the delivery of data merged with the production capability resulted in custom manufacturing for a mass volume price. Looking at the system it could be presented as 

  • growing raw material
  • converting material into components 
  • assembling components into products
  • =
  • Using products
  • +
  • Retiring products into reusable material

Every step has a energy cost, knowledge cost, organization cost and investment cost. The energy cost depends heavily on the distribution and production approach and how the whole process avoids waist by allowing products to go back to material. The investment cost is strongly related to knowledge and organization, where downscaling helps with reducing the investment.

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