The eye in the sky, now on the edge

Discussing digital transformation with a brilliant mind in the field of digital transformation recently, I asked: “What emerging technology do you believe will be most transformational in the industrial sector?” His answer: Video.

His focus on video stems from the growth in IT bandwidth and the ability to support video with AI-powered analytics to more effectively discern patterns when data is deployed across IoT networks. AI and the Internet of things (IoT), or the combined AIoT, is deemed critically important to digital transformation initiatives, industry leaders say. Where AI analytics are deployed depends upon the challenge to be addressed.

As an AI-focused executive with a leading firm connected to these converging technologies, the gentleman I was speaking with was fascinated by a demo he saw at a recent trade show. It depicted a factory with thousands of cameras installed, one above each employee workstation. The goal, he said, was “to effectively use a camera to ‘sensorize’ a person [and] figure out if folks are deviating from the agreed processes.”

Businesses of all types — from small machinery suppliers to large manufacturers (like Foxconn) have for decades used cameras and machine vision software for applications such as quality assurance, to recognize patterns and detect and reject off-spec products. It’s really no surprise, but a logical extension of what Henry Ford did in automaking; what W. Edwards Deming did in post-WWII Japan; and what Ray “McDonald’s” Kroc did in fast food.

What may be surprising how real-time video analytics can transcend the mechanistic aspects of how people act to discern how they feel. In video and audio applications, machine learning has already been applied to customer service call centers and doctor-patient telemedicine apps to identify such things as anger and frustration. The data inputs for A/V analytics include voice analysis, facial expressions, movements, and posture. Industrial applications are no doubt coming, if not already here.

The edge of progress

As market demand fuels technical capability, video analytics solutions will continue raining down from longer-term remote cloud applications to people-watching applications based in real-time edge computing networks on or near the production floor. Intel’s Chet Hullum and his team improved semiconductor manufacturing at the edge because addressing cloud latency issues “would be far too expensive,” as I reported for SmartIndustry. (Intel Tweet and LinkedIn post (below) give more background:

Logroll on the blogroll: Please to have Intel ‘social’ my writing.

With advances in connectivity and pervasive analytics, the eye in the sky really isn’t the limit anymore.


help me help you!

The robots are winning

AI disruption seems to have thinned the workforce for good. Now what? 


Where would we be if wheels were still square? If the Luddites kept machines out of textile mills? If the cotton gin didn’t decimate the pre-war Confederate workforce? Today, one has to wonder how many truck drivers will be able to find new work once driverless rigs rule the roads. 

With regard to the the long-term impact of automation general, I’ve been ambivalent for decades; gung-ho for progress but concerned about a gutting of the workforce. In the mid ’90s, I spent a day with an engineering leader who gave me a tour of his workplace, a refinery that stretched for miles. He showed:

  • Pride in his control network, which bore early AI enhancements
  • Sorrow for the loss of most employees at the plant and industry-wide due to automation, and
  • Resentment of the coming “corpocracy” in which individuals lose their humanity.

I shared my ambivalence in a column I wrote for Control magazine at about that time after a conversation with a senior engineer at another Big Petro firm folding 17 subsidiaries into one. I started the column ranting about corporate “destructuring” and “dumb sizing,” and ended with: “It’s hard to argue with the bottom line.” 

ReThinking robots

Likewise, I’m mixed about the impact of industrial robots, worth about $40 billion and pegged to top $71.72 billion by 2023. Companies choose to replace people when the technology is available because they’re a better-faster-cheaper way to go. I was saddened at the demise of ReThink Robotics, maker of Baxter and Sawyer, the industry’s friendliest collaborative robots, or cobots. (collaborative robots). And I was glad the company was quickly bought-up by Germany’s Hahn Group. Rethink, a small player compared to leaders such as FANUC, ABB and Yaskawa, failed not for lack of demand, but in large part due to technical issues, if this RobotReport postmortem is accurate.

Baxter (pictured) and brother Sawyer have a new parent in Hahn.

In better times (2016), I spoke with ReThink’s Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer, who extolled his bots’ rapid ROI (as low as 1.5 years) and quick installation time (under a month) as well as speed and flexibility. For instance, he told me of a Tier One automotive supplier that replaced 20 hours of manual labor day: “$25,000 for the robot, and a little bit for the grippers, and we’ve saved them $180,000 a year.”

Robots don’t call in sick, need healthcare, come in late or take days off. They do work when workers don’t want to, or can’t be found. And companies are bound by the need for competitive advantage and higher profits to use them if they’ll keep the shareholders happy. But again, the industrial workforce, once an engine of the middle class, is shrinking.   

The U.S. middle class: Doomed? 

Technology both eliminates and creates =jobs, but the former appears to be winning in the U.S. marketplace. 

As one Clorox exec said during a panel discussion a couple of years back, “every” manufacturing company is busy automating and “leaning-out” its lines. A Kraft Foods alum added that it’s commonplace for companies to replace upward of “100 people on a Lunchables line [with robots] picking up stacks of pre-sliced meat and pre-sliced cheese.” 

“Employment trends have polarized the workforce and hollowed out the middle class,” David Rotman, editor of MIT Technology Review wrote in the article, “How Technology is Destroying Jobs.” Since then, TechCrunch promulgated the paradox that “Technology is killing jobs, and only technology can save them” (2016),” The New York Times shared in 2017 “Evidence That Robots Are Winning the Race for American Jobs.

What to do? Thought leaders across business, politics and industry have since given credence to the movement for Universal Basic Income, a flat payment to every citizen, to address poverty and job losses largely incurred by technological advancement.

UBI has been advocated by the Brookings Institution, given credence by Fortune (no leftist-socialist totem), and promoted by Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and many in Silicon Valley, including Mark Zuckerberg. More recently, UBI generated headlines in 2018 in Chicago with a petition by city Alderman Ameya Pawar (@Ameya_Pawar_IL) to take the city Universal:

Chicago, future home of Universal Basic Income?  

There ain’t no “i” in TEAM

Henry Ford did it, McDonald’s did it, and now the collective, global technology hive mind is doing it: Standardizing business processes to advance the competitive mandate for greater productivity and profitability. I love to hear stories of happy employees, but below photo mesmerized me to the point of distraction. So I’m using it to illustrate a point:

The point — no offense intended to the editor who penned the caption! — is that companies can’t afford for their employees to be “themselves” in that we can’t have guitar players, poets or sewing circle meetings on the factory floor. The employees pictured are essentially identical, down to their garb (as required by sanitary food handling rules). Their jobs are the same, too: to comply with uniform standards procedures.

But if there’s no ‘i’ in TEAM,” there’s still something of a “we.”  The ranks will thin, but there will remain a critical need for creative human minds to solve problems, even at the line level.

Almost a decade ago I helped a manufacturing exec, Greg Flickinger, document a cultural transformation at food firm Snyder’s-Lance in Charlotte, N.C. His team reduced scrap 40 percent; reduced customer complaints 41 percent; and, among other good stuff, slashed production changeover time to save more than $300,000 annually.

The human-machine interface, writ large over time, points to great gains and equally daunting challenges. Let’s face it: As a species, we’ve got a troubling historic myopia, and an immediate need to reconcile longstanding issues relating to our technology and economy, or techonomy.



Gibson bankruptcy: Can these guitars rock redemption?

How many brands do you know that you thought were “cool,” then fell victim to investors’ growth demands, and cheapened themselves by falling into the AFAB (anything for a buck) trap? As Gibson, like other leading guitar-makers watered down their brands, they’ve become a bit like Playboy. You know, Playboy, the erstwhile aspirational lifestyle brand that’s now arguably best known the bunny air fresheners hanging on pegboards in dollar stores and car washes?

Alas, poor Gibson, the “entertainment lifestyle” brand hat couldn’t. Following years of expansion and brand extensions, the company filed for bankruptcy on May 1. And it may spell a better future for the only thing the company ever did that mattered: making great musical instruments.

Founded in 1902 and once-again privately held since 1986, Gibson lost its focus, found itself $500 million in debt, and is on the cusp of taking a $135 million loan from a new conglomeration of fund managers and bond holders. It’s a deal that’ll likely hand ownership to people who don’t know much about Gibson’s “120 Years of Innovation.” (As documented in Gibson’s  timeline.)

As musical friends reacted (no doubt worldwide) on social media, I found my own gut vacillating between two sentiments expressed by two musician friends in my hometown, Chicago:

“Rock is dead.” — Doug Hagman, Terrapin Flyer

“…if you are looking for Gibson, there are 20,000 hanging on music store walls as we speak. And that doesn’t include Europe.” —James Chrzan, Paradise Waits

Doug’s got a point; today’s guitars are something of an automated, high-tech echo of the design and handiwork of Les Paul and other greats, and company ownership has shifted to a conglomeration of investors. But James is also right. Those who want and can afford a Gibson can find a huge selection at music stores both brick and mortar and online. If they’re made well and play well, great. If not, there are many other companies large and small making guitars the old fashioned way.

Headlines like the one Rolling Stone ran on May 1 — “Iconic Guitar Brand Gibson Files For Bankruptcy” — were perfect for causing hand-wringing by Gibson aficionados.  But the deck (subhead under the headline) immediately followed: “Company will refocus on its musical instruments, shedding its audio and home entertainment business.

Part of me — and many others — resent pure financial plays by investors whose moral fiber has no any steel strings attached. Other headlines similarly told a more cheerful story, such as Bloomberg’s “Gibson Files for Bankruptcy in Deal to Renew Guitar Business.” That’s the sentiment that led me to opine that the Gibson filing might be good news:

“If they shed stupid businesses like the boom-box business it bought from Philips, AND if all the good people don’t quit or get fired (or escape to Heritage Guitars!) — Gibson can restructure and get back to making guitars.” (More on Heritage below.)

Yeah, just one idiot’s opinion. But by “stupid” I refer to Gibson’s 2014 acquisition of Philips’ the audio, video, multimedia and accessories business, which turned out to be a financial albatross. At the same time, companies need to make money to stay in business, and the guitar business, with sales of $5.6 billion in 2017, has been relatively flat for years. It’s just not that exciting to investors. (Gibson’s lucky a few care enough to step in with loans.) As for firings, Gibson in March planned a pre-filing workforce reduction of 12-15%, following layoffs already made to its Custom Shop, Digital Music News wrote last month. That is NOT how a company seeking to shed non-core businesses treats the braintrust of its core business. It smells more like a move by execs who are about to pack their golden parachutes and bail out before the axe falls.

MarketWatch provided some good insight early in the bankruptcy filing news cycle with the “day-of” (May 6) story, “As Gibson files for bankruptcy, are people falling out of love with guitars?”  Another, filed May 10, provided more insight into why guitar companies are struggling and how to revive them. In that latter story veteran guitar pro Stevie Salas, said, “Gibson was pressured to get super-rich and they made moves that can destroy companies.” He lamented moves from Gibson, Fender and others watering down their brand image by slapping their names on $99 guitar packages sold in big-box and club-store retailers.

Writer Tom Teodorczuk added that “cheapening an iconic brand while at the same time raising prices through the roof is no way to engender loyalty by a new generation of musicians.”

Today, if I want a Gibson electric, my gut tells me to turn to Heritage Guitar, a spinoff formed in 1985 by employees who bought Gibson’s original Kalamazoo factory when Gibson moved to Nashville. Heritage has done only one thing: make  high-end American electric guitars. Surely THEY are heart and soul of the old Gibson we love, right?

Heritage Guitars: following in Gibson’s footsteps?

Heritage was 0ff to a great start, but in the 1990s it stopped advertising, lost sales and nearly shuttered the 90-plus year-old factory in 2007 — until, according to a Michigan news report, a local lawyer turned co-owner became a “guitar hero” and saved the company.

The company changed hands again in 2016, and in the fall of 2017, the new management team inked a partnership with Rolling Stone and a real estate developer to create at tourist shrine at the factory aimed at “incorporating a wealth of music and pop culture into a multimillion-dollar renovation” to possibly include a live entertainment venue, instrument store, museum, recording studio, restaurant and rooftop bar,” according to a news report. 

My opinion is that we don’t need another Hard Rock Cafe, we need companies that make amazing guitars. Well, actually, we need people who make amazing guitars.

Early this year, Heritage — which I thought was the soul of Gibson —fired 10 craftsmen and more quit in protest as the company automated with multi-axis  CNC and PLEX machines. I love automation, it’s a tough call to bash it categorically but man, is nothing sacred? Maybe it’s okay, maybe not. But increasingly, artisans are being left out, as expressed in the March 1 headline, “Firings of craftsmen take heart out of Heritage Guitar, workers say.” If Heritage was the heart of Gibson, and some of the best people have left, I hope they keep making guitars, either by banding together or working as sole artisans…for those deep-pocketed musicians who can afford to support them.

The grass isn’t greener at Fender, others

Roughly analogous to the Heritage/Gibson relationship is that of that other iconic guitar company, Fender and spinoff G+L (The “L” being Leo Fender. Like Gibson and now Heritage, Fender and G+L use CNC and PLEX technologies.

Back in 1965 when Fender sold out to CBS, purists decried the change. They were right to in some cases, including the devaluation of classic amps like the Twin Reverb amplifier and others whose circuitry was “enhanced” to be cleaner, changing the nature of the amps’ trademark growl. In 1985, employees purchased the company back and today, a holding company of multiple partners runs Fender. And like Gibson, Fender has made many acquisitions. One I see as particularly ugly is the 2011 partnership with Volkswagen to put “Fender Premium Audio” into cars. You don’t play it like a guitar, you play it like a car stereo.

So many brands have turned themselves into crap over the years just to make a Faustian buck. Of course, expansion and globalization has had various merits, business-wise for years (though my focus isn’t on them at the moment). In the 1970s, Japanese then-upstart Ibanez made a mint making cheaper knockoffs of Gibson’s Les Paul guitars, and over the years leading brands offshore their own knockoffs to Asian factories, even G+L. Rather than going into that tangled knot, help yourself to two good if aging articles I found, one from Acoustic Guitar  (2014) and another on USA vs. Chinese guitars from Guitar Player (2013). If they ask me to write, I’ll update them!

The cycle of innovation

As old brands face shaky prospects for rebirth, new startups should emerge to take their place. New growth in the form if small startups that succeed will always end up changing hands in the natural course of their lives. Retirement, death and other drivers of succession are just part of the corporate, and human, nature.

But it doesn’t have to be that way if companies can be innovative without losing their souls and core consumer/user proponents.

Any number of papers, presentations and tutorials are available to leaders who want to stay leaders. Just search “innovation management” or “cycle of innovation” and you’ll find links such as  the American Society for Quality’s Innovation Management Cycle and the “3 Key Principles for Maintaining a Cycle of Continuous Innovation” from Chief Executive magazine. In the latter, the first principle is: “Start at the top,” with the CEO leading by example. That doesn’t mean there’ll be greater handmade content in the products coming out of guitar factories. A case in point: Gibson’s G Force “robotic” (self-tuning) guitars. But it does mean, at least, that the Gibsons, Fenders of the world will have a better idea how to balance the need for profits against the effects of innovation on brand loyalists.

Love the instrument, not the company

I admit it’s painful when something like the Fender Stratocaster name is whored-out to Asia and Mexico to capitalize on the iconic guitar name and shape, but there are still “American Original” Strats for the purists. It’s just the nature of things.

In the late ’80s when I bought my Strat Plus in its debut year, I was choosing between that and a G+L, and chose the Fender because the G+L was heavy as hell…great sustain but heavy as hell. The neck wasn’t lined up with the strings as perfectly I thought it should be, so I went back to the music store where Larry, the guy who sold it to me, gave it a whack it to straighten it out, and said, “They’re all like that.” I wish I paid better attention to G+L but I still have my Plus and pretty much love it. 

In 2003 when I bought a Hofner Jazzica archtop hand-crafted in Germany and finished in the company’s violin shop. The label inside the F-hole indicated that it was “No. 1 of 50” of a limited run for the year. That year, the company’s musical instrument division was sold, sold again and a year later, sold again. A few years later Hofner established in 1887 and made famous by Paul McCartney’s “Beatle bass,” was making Jazzicas identical to mine in a factory in China. It bugged me a little to see the Chinese models hanging in a shop, but for me, it’s the feel and sound, not the look (despite its hand-rubbed violin shop finish) that makes my guitar what it is.

Hofner has changed ownership about as often as I change my underwear (well, not quite), and I sleep very well at night knowing that I have a quality instrument. The location of the factory making newer versions doesn’t affect the quality or intrinsic value of my guitar. 

There will always be artisans making quality guitars — for that matter, making all manner of good things. I suppose we’ll just have to do our best to have the things we like, and can afford, while doing our best to support the artisans who care about the work they do. As big names rise, fall and regroup, smaller shops will continue to spin-off, emerge, innovate.

And keep banging on your guitar.

Toward a legal, national market for cannabis

The story’s out in Pharmaceutical Commerce magazine: “Medical marijuana looks for a place in conventional drug distribution.” It’s based on all kinds of research and interviews with CEOs, legislators and prognosticators in this budding industry.

Frustrations are great as the right hand of the U.S. federal government (DEA) either doesn’t know — or care, or approve — of the actions, research and recommendations of its own left hand (NIH among others). Also, it’s interesting that some of the same Big Pharma industry players that fund crackdowns on marijuana-related crimes (according to current laws) may well be seeking ways to cash-in on the eventuality of legal cannabis commerce. Currently, money crossing state lines can lead to issues with money laundering, since the lowly weed is still an illegal Schedule 1 substance.

A tenuous relationship exists between Big pharma, the supplement market and dispensaries with regard to cannabis’ legality. (Photo: Cannabis Science)

Changes are coming from a few corners of the medical cannabis world — as my investigations, only some of which are published, attest. Eventually at the state and federal levels, the day will come when cannabis is as broadly accepted, profitable and legal as any FDA-approved supplement, OTC drug or prescription remedy.  Ongoing research, advocacy and public support make it seem inevitable if not imminent.

The story linked here includes interviews surrounding pharmaceutical business-related developments. But the medicinal/health benefits-related aspect of this plant don’t end with conventional drug development, owing much to proponents of the whole-plant entourage effect. There’s more to the story than this relatively 101-level view written for mainstream, non-cannabis-versed executives.

Industry compliance to FDA Food Safety Modernization Act flying high

How's the FDA's new food safety rule affecting how food gets packaged?

How’s the FDA’s new food safety rule affecting how food gets packaged?

One of the hats I’ve worn of late is that of Editor of Packaging World‘s 2014 Food Safety Playbook for 2014 (as well as the preceding, inaugural edition).

Among the updates packed into the 101-page e-book were the results of a brief survey of U.S. food and beverage product packagers done in Q1, gauging industry readiness for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) now being implemented in rolling deadlines.

The results were optimistic; a large and in some aspects overwhelming majority reported that they have already completed the law’s key requirements into their food safety plans, or will in the coming year.

Since this blog is open to all who click, I’ll say that there’s a LOT to the law, the industry’s reaction, overall compliance and issues that’d have lay-people wondering: “What does it all mean?”

In general, I think the law’s a good thing. If you want to discuss in depth, I’ll invite you to read the whole playbook, or be smart enough not to have to — in which case I’ll refer you to someone with first-hand knowledge of the law, and of food safety. I was once certified to be a food safety guy in the dairy industry, but really, was no expert. Ever.

Want more on the survey results and implications? Read my article, “FSMA compliance soars for those who meet existing standards.”

Be forewarned; I don’t divulge all of the results in this story, but there is a link to the full playbook at that link. If you’re in the industry, I hope you won’t mind having to register to get the playbook for free.

War over water? Consumer brands brace for impact

War over water? If we can have wars over oil, why not water, farmland and other resources that drive economic development? It could happen, according to Nausheen Kaul, principal with A.T. Kearney, advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations.

Worsening inequality and aging populations contribute to global destabilization.

But it struck me how, based on the data they get from firms such as Kearney, how global organizations react: They’ve already begun moving to acquire or otherwise secure the world’s water supplies and prime agricultural real estate, Kaul said.

That was just one nugget from Kaul’s presentation on global economic trends. (My straight-news version of it’s here.) His main goal was insight-shedding, not fear-mongering.

What are the implications of this war-over-water business, beyond pure monetary gain?

There are a few ways to look at it. One is that that massive land-and-water grabs by Western firms will stabilize developing economies. Another perspective is that this activity will amount to economic colonization and will fuel the conflict as surely as the British political colonization did…and will ultimately fail. A third perspective is that conflict is inevitable, and given the regulatory climate, Big Money in the West must do what it does because regulations allow it and shareholders demand it; if Coke doesn’t gobble-up the world’s water and land, Pepsi will.

As global financial leaders invest, governments will continue to buckle under the pressure of aging populations and worsening inequality.

Natural resource and political instability, Kaul said, is already causing a “Global Resource Nexus” in which the interplay between the supply and demand of food, energy and water are driving some troubling developments. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be “hyper-urbanized” into cities, governments will buckle under the pressure to accommodate aging populations and technology developments will make or break efforts to feed more people, sustainably and with fewer resources.

Kaul presented solutions for how companies can prepare, but they’re all about benefits to business. Is what’s good for business always good for mankind?

I’d like to know, but don’t comment here; drop me a line.