Thursday, March 31, 2011

Solving the problems of production

I came of age during perhaps the ultimate spasm of the Cold War--the USA invasion of Vietnam.  That insane conflict defined much of my youth.  Ostensibly we were fighting against the ultimate evil in Southeast Asia--Communism.  And because I grew to detest everything about that 'war,' there was a short period when I dabbled in the intellectual underpinnings of the 'enemy' by reading Marx.

That didn't last long.  While I came to understand why Marx's pithy critique of capitalism had become so popular around the world, I soon became disenchanted with his historical analysis of economic problems.  At one point, I read that Marx believed that capitalism was superior to feudalism because that was the stage of economic development where the problems of production had been solved.  Solved?  By that point in my life I had worked enough in jobs like construction to know that there had NEVER been a time when the problems of production were solved--those problems had to be addressed every day!

More importantly, solving the problems of production has nothing to do with one's politics and everything to do with the facts on the ground.  Visits to some Marxist states confirmed for me that people who believed that problems of production were something that had been solved in the ancient past tended to produce extremely shoddy goods.  This made my infatuation with Marxism very brief--it would not survive exposure to something as utterly absurd as a Wartburg (an East German car produced in Eisenach.)

But while history demonstrates that capitalism has been much more effective than other political systems at providing consumers with quality goods, it is hardly without problems of its own.  Take the example of Boeing.  Here is a company that produces arguably the finest commercial aircraft ever made--to the point where there are pilots and passengers around the world who will say "Its Boeing, or I'm not going!"  But in February of 2000, the neoliberals who had infiltrated Boeing management provoked a bitter strike with its union of rocket scientists called SPEEA.  Because Boeing cannot produce aircraft without its rocket scientists (SPEEA's rallying cry was "No Nerds, No Birds") it was forced to settle.  The neoliberals were outraged and so set in motion changes that would make Boeing less vulnerable to labor actions.  It moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago and began outsourcing its work in earnest.

So now, Boeing's war on its workers has come back to haunt them.  Neoliberal management has made it very difficult to produce the latest plane.

Jumbo Problems
Dreamliner Becomes a Nightmare for Boeing
By Dinah Deckstein   03/30/2011 
Boeing wanted to revolutionize the airplane business with its Dreamliner, which was to be built using a modular approach. But the US company went too far in its outsourcing, and the aircraft has been plagued by production problems. Delivery is now way behind schedule and the delays could cost the firm billions.
Eight years ago, managers at the American airplane manufacturer Boeing had a brainstorm. Their idea: Build airplanes the same way the automobile industry manufactures cars, with contractors producing entire components that are then assembled in a final step. That dream resulted in Boeing's new long-range 787, the first model to be built using this modular principle. And perhaps it was that approach that inspired the plane's name: Dreamliner.
A visit to Boeing's factory in Everett, Washington, north of Seattle, shows what's come of that heady vision. Here, gleaming airplane bodies stand nose to tail on a long factory work floor, as if on an assembly line. Most of them have already received the final coat of paint, adorned with logos for airlines such as Air India and Japan Airlines.
So far, though, not one of the planes, which cost up to $185 million (€131 million) each, has been delivered to buyers. They haven't even received official authorization, due to problems with the software and electronics. Instead, the finished jets are taking up space in the area behind the building and on a nearby airfield.
There are already around two dozen planes waiting here, with more to join them in the next weeks and months. Boeing also plans to move part of the fleet to Texas for retrofitting. This spectacular airplane stockpile in Washington could one day go down in aviation history -- as a monument to the hubris of Boeing managers and a warning for future generations. more
And then there are the problems caused by streamlining production to the point where every supply node is so critical, a tiny disruption causes major headaches.  The earthquake in Japan was NOT tiny and the resulting disruption to global automobile production has been monumental.
Tour of quake zone shows Akio Toyoda 'the depth of destruction'
Akio Toyoda's whirlwind trip underscored one of the company's guiding business principles: Genchi genbutsu--Toyota-speak for "go and see for yourself." Pictures of the visit show the CEO clad in a heavy work coat and sporting a hardhat as he surveyed the scene. 
Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda toured Japan's earthquake disaster zone, including the damaged assembly plant opened there in January, as the world's largest automaker struggles to get a grip on the supplier crisis and resume production.
Toyoda's trip on Sunday and Monday took him to Miyagi prefecture, near the epicenter of the killer March 11 quake and an area being positioned by Toyota as its domestic center for small car production.
The vast majority of the carmaker's 18 Japanese assembly plants remain closed. Toyota started limited production of the Toyota Prius and Lexus HS250h and Lexus CT 200h hybrids on Monday. But those lines are scheduled to pause on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the carmaker has identified about 500 parts in short supply that must be carefully monitored to ensure production can resume smoothly.
Among the sites Toyoda visited was the Central Motors Co. assembly plant in Ohira,which opened in January and makes the Yaris sedan for export to the United States. That facility, which received light damage to the building and machinery, has been closed since the quake.
Go and see
Toyoda, grandson of the carmaker's founder, also visited a local plant run by supplier Toyota Boshoku and another parts plant run by affiliate Toyota Tohoku. He also stopped by four dealerships, as well as the shipping port of nearby Sendai city, where Toyota loads the Yaris.
The struck region is "one of our production bases, those directly hit and vastly affected include our dealers, suppliers and numerous other partners," Toyoda said in a statement. "Seeing the devastation with my own eyes brought home to me the depth of destruction."
The company did not give details about the condition of the various plants he visited.
But Toyoda's whirlwind trip underscored one of the company's guiding business principles: Genchi genbutsu--Toyotaspeak for "Go and see for yourself." Pictures of the visit show the CEO clad in a heavy work coat and sporting a hardhat as he surveyed the scene.
Limited output of hybrid vehicles continued Tuesday. But the lines were expected to take a break Wednesday to assess the balance of components in stock, before reopening on Thursday.
The Prius is made at Toyota's Tsutsumi plant near the company's Toyota City headquarters in central Japan, while the Lexus models are made at Toyota Motor Kyushu in southern Japan.
The rest of the company's assembly lines are all shuttered as it scrambles to guarantee a continuous flow of parts from its suppliers. Toyota previously had suspended its 18 domestic assembly plants through Sunday, saying it would lose production of 140,000 vehicles.
In a sign that lost production figures might grow, Toyota warned last week that its North American plants may also cut production due to shortages of parts from Japan. more

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