Friday, August 29, 2014

California's Biggest Obstacle To Clean Manufacturing--Its Environmental Laws?

Tesla's steady surge into the fabric of American manufacturing is poised for a milestone in its plan to build a giant lithium battery plant-a "gigafactory" that they claim would guarantee homegrown creation of at least 6500 new jobs.  Naturally numbers like that will have states bidding like crazy for the project, and Musk's group has narrowed their choices for the site down to five states: Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California.

While taxes are always going to be a factor, that doesn't seem to be the primary hurdle Tesla is looking at for which state is suitable for the project.  Musk seems to have time on his mind:

"Timing for the gigafactory is very important,” Tesla spokesman Simon Sproule said Monday. “So all five states in the running for the gigafactory need to demonstrate, among other factors, that they can help us deliver the factory on time.” (Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2014)

Lithium ion batteries similar to the one above will be
manufactured at Tesla's proposed factory.
This may have very well been a direct message to California, which among the states, has the greatest California Environmental Quality Act- signed into law by Ronald Reagan- that state and municipal boards review any project sites for environmental impact before construction is allowed to begin.  While CEQA's intention was to preserve California's unique and fragile environment, its critics point out it may be hindering environmental efforts more than helping.  Because it vastly empowers local government, many neighborhoods have used it to turn down projects that could help the state ween itself off fossil fuels, such as wind farms and solar fields.  CEQA has become a tool of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) sentiments, instead of green business expansion.

The Governor's administration is considering waiving the requirements of the regulation hurdles to clear.

However, there's an understandable concern in relaxing regulations around what is essentially, despite Tesla's green reputation, a battery plant.  While it's true there is precedent for CEQA being waived for large-scale projects (it was suspended when the NFL had proposed a football stadium in Los Angeles), lithium batteries and the risks their manufacturing could have in damaging the local environment with excess hazardous material is precisely the kind of project it was designed to regulate in the first place.  

With Tesla's determination to meet the deadline of 2017, the rush to cut through bureaucracy has created in California an all too common conflict between public and private incentive. Yet seeing how it will play out in the alternative fuel market may test everyone's assumptions of clean vs. dirty and what will really help this industry grow into the 21st century.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Finding What Works

The Big M Conference in Detroit drew multiple manufacturing companies, big and small, this past month, and served as a prime venue to exchange new ideas on how to continue refining the industry to adjust to a 21st century world that is rapidly changing.

Two major companies, GE and sealing giant Freudenberg-NOK,  delivered messages targeted for the Conference that directly addresses those changes.  Comparing their platforms can be very useful in finding patterns of what the community as a whole is trending towards as an overall philosophy.Starting with GE, which recently published an article in GEreports boiling their approach down to "four pillars": Virtual Manufacturing, Intelligent Machines, Flexible Factories, and  Reconfiguerable Supply Chains.  All four provide the ground for "brilliant factories"; plants more organic in operation and valuing smart data as a needed element, not just a supplemental advantage:

"To build what we call a Brilliant Factory—or a 21st century digital model—each of the four pillars will need a strong IT infrastructure that ties the manufacturing supply chain together and creates data highways for information to be transmitted wherever it needs to go. It also will require a common software platform that can integrate all of the data systems of a company’s manufacturing operations. These are both pieces GE is building to provide that IT support network"

Compare this to Fredenberg-NOK CEO Dr. Theodore G. Duclos's talk at the Big M, emphasizing  the company's Six Guiding Principles to steer it towards an evolution from the days of "lean manufacturing" to a more sophisticated, data-driven model of sustainability:

"Ultimately the six Principles – value for customer, responsibility, innovation, leadership, people and a long-term orientation – will provide the framework needed for Freudenberg-NOK to embrace the industrial evolution taking place in manufacturing, and the company will continue to meet and exceed customer demands and prosper", Duclos said.

"Whether we realize it or not, our journey to lean processes has been leading us to sustainability all along," Duclos concluded. "The principles of lean systems will inevitably lead us to create manufacturing processes that can close the carbon cycle that has been unsustainably open for many years."

Both long-term outlooks tend to hit on a few notions:

-Flexibility is key to sustainability.  Both companies value the notion of being able to customize, whether it be for clients or for employees.  GE essentially goes so far as to acknowledge this level of flexibility will most likely change the assembly line model for good ("The assembly line represented a huge leap in productivity for factories, but try to make data-driven system-optimal real-time adjustments and changes to the production process and you will find it difficult to do.")

-Automation over traditional labor.  Yep, the robots are here.  With the kind of affordability goals GE desires (20 percent increase in manufacturing and supply productivity), and its pillar devoted to factory-floor machines that operate within a real-time data network, the emphasis of automated labor over human is pretty much in black-and-white.

Freudenberg-NOK is very intriguing in its desire to see production cycles parallel those of the biological world, but again, this is also reflective of a general aversion to relying on human hands on the 21st century factory floor. While this may sound like bad news in the short run for employment numbers, one can hope local governments wise up to where the labor demand will obviously show itself: design, development, and thought-based skills to keep global-sized digital networks not just surviving, but thriving.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.