The sitting machine
By 2018, the production landscape had changed quite a lot. Cheap non specialised labour is not the speciality of Guangdong anymore.
A big wave of automation left behind the ruins of factories that could not catch it and surf toward a future made of innovation.
But there are specialised clusters deeply rooted and impermeable to automation. Easily they shrank under pressure from new emerging countries in the Asia region and struggled as their labour became older and much more expensive.
On the west banks of the Pearl River delta, there is an area where the speciality is wicker weaving. Wicker has been substituted with all sorts of synthetic materials, frames are now made of iron, steel, even aluminium, but weaving remains an exclusive prerogative of a small group of old specialists.
It is easy to imagine how the situation put the bosses under pressure between workers that have to be pampered and pleased, being hard to substitute, and customer pushing for ever lower prices.
My friend is one of those customers. He ran for several years his own company in Guangzhou with a family tradition in the capital of chairs in Italy and a well established commercial channel.
Specialised in garden wicker woven chairs, he just moved one step up in a very tough market from being OEM to having his own innovative design and brand. Production costs are a deal breaker for him, but he does not want to jeopardise his operations looking for new suppliers after the time and energy he spend to select and engage the best one already.
So one day he calls me and goes: “Pietro, I need to cut down the cost of production of my new chair by nearly one dollar or I am out of the market. Do you mind visiting the factory with me and coming up with an idea?”
Wicker weaving looks really like a dummy job. Just interweave a 50 meter long string into a metal frame, forth and back until all the seat and back-rest are filled and the whole string is used. And the process takes more than one hour for an experienced weaver.
But it is all but dummy. I spent a few hours looking at the workers, then a whole day at my friend office trying and re-trying and I figured out that the process was already nearly optimal. And yet, thanks to broad cross industry experience, I could see space for improvement.
The “Photonic Machine”
I was about to release to my friend a brief report with my findings and suggestions for side improvement of the process when suddenly I saw in my mind a machine capable to do 90% of the process in a matter of seconds and leave to the worker 10 minutes of not so specialised work to finish up all.
It took some time but I managed to let my friend visualise what was so obvious to me and he jumped on the idea with all his enthusiasm, ready to build the “Photonic Machine” as he named my incredible invention.
To solve the weaving problem with automation would be a huge breakthrough in the industry. Many even much larger companies tried, but none succeeded. I could imagine the reasons for their failure but I was very happy with my Pareto ratio as my aim was not to kick workers out but to use them only for meaningful tasks.
To develop an 80% automatic machine would only cost 20% of a fully automatic one but it would be capable to achieve 80% reduction of production time. That would easily mean a cut in production costs well above my friend’s expectations and, with large production, plenty of budget for the project.
I took a pragmatic approach to the matter and prepared a plan with a projection of cost, time frame and confidence along a chain of steps where one step completion validates the assumptions on which the next step is based. Starting with very basic proof of concept the plan aimed to complete in 2 months a device capable to assist the worker pulling in a matter of seconds the whole length of wicker once interwoven in the metal frame, a process taking about one minute when done by hand.
My friend and the boss of the factory were happy to finance 2 months of work and some basic components to achieve with high confidence his primary target of 5 CNY cut in the production cost and at the same time validate the possibility to build the “Photonic Machine”.
I asked to have a space on the production floor to build my prototype and at the same time have opportunity to study more the manual process and have the workers peeking in and comment.
A failure for success
Factory shop floor is not a maker space. Hard to get even basic tools if they are not in the line of work for the production. I had a hard time procuring, cutting, machining, assembling and then doing it all again after an unsuccessful test.
But I figured out a few shortcomings of my original idea and saw a better solution or sometime just a workaround. I understood a lot more about the physics of wicker and interweaving and consolidated a sturdier platform of knowledge for the “Photonic Machine”.
My friend was peeking in at times and leaving with mixed feelings. The progress was evident, but the target seemed never to get much closer and this frustrated him more than me. On the other end he was getting more confident and excited that the larger picture as well as the method to make it real were right. The boss of the factory, Chinese, was more sceptical, but he had made his pragmatic calculations and he was fine with them.
It took one month longer than expected and some extra work, but finally it was time to proof the concept. And the test failed.
It was not a gross failure, but it was clear that using the tool I produced, even fixing a couple of trivial issues, would not have provided a relevant advantage.
In fact half of the reason for that was that in the meantime the workers had managed to cut the production time to half.
During the meeting after the test my friend was quite depressed but the factory boss explained that due to the reduction in production time he was now capable to cut the cost by 5 CNY which was exactly what they paid me to achieve. Not only that, but they also got all the basic research made to develop the “Photonic Machine” that demonstrated the feasibility in principle.
What had happened is that by looking at my clumsy attempts the workers got a subtle pressure that their job might be not so secure, but also got hints on how to do it faster and better using some smart solutions I was applying to my prototype.
A failed prototype turned into an astonishing success, the product is out and breaking sale records and my Maecenas are confident that as soon as the number grow enough they can call me to finish the “Photonic Machine”
The lesson I learned
- Team up with all parties involved, learn from each other’s specialisation, build excellence by collective contribution.
- Consolidate usable value at every step of a project. Success will be total anyway, while failure only partial.
- As Deng Xiaoping said, the cat’s colour does not matter. Keep your focus on the aim of the project not on the path to achieve it