Wednesday, August 27, 2014

GM's new manufacturing strategy helps breathe new life into Tennessee town

Spring Hill, Tenn.— General Motors Co.’s Spring Hill complex is on a path that may lead to a doubled workforce and become a vision of GM’s manufacturing future.

The town and its namesake auto plant, 35 miles south of Nashville, were home to Saturn manufacturing for more than a decade before GM stopped assembly operations for nearly three years following its bankruptcy. It became a metaphor for GM’s overreach, its fall and now its resurgence.

The factory, designed to be flexible enough to build most any vehicle in GM’s lineup, was promised $350 million in investment, 1,800 additional or retained jobs and two new vehicles. Wednesday, GM is expected to further sweeten the deal.

At an event attended by the governor and other officials, GM is expected to announce additional investment and jobs. It has been widely speculated that the carmaker will move production of the Cadillac SRX from a plant in Mexico to Spring Hill and transfer GMC Acadia production from GM’s Lansing Delta Township plant.

Already, suppliers are planning to build near the plant, in order to improve quality, reduce transportation costs and assure that parts are ready when GM needs them.

Chad Meyer, president of NorthPoint Development which is developing the industrial park, said two companies codenamed “Project Buckeye” and “Project Angus” will move in near GM’s plant, bringing in 400 to 500 jobs, combined. One company is from Ohio; the other was nicknamed because of the cows that used to roam the land where the buildings are going up.

The state revealed last month that ABC Group plans to invest $25.5 million in its Gallatin, Tenn., plant, about an hour away, adding 180,000 square feet and creating 230 jobs. The expansion will increase capacity to build consoles, interior trim and floors for new GMC and Cadillac vehicles to be made at Spring Hill, according to the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

The additional facilities sprouting up around the plant are encouraging to Spring Hill employees such as Marie Johnson, 55, of Columbia, Tenn. She was laid off for several years before returning to the plant a few years ago.

“It was rough,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Johnson sees the two new auto suppliers as a sign of job security.

“It makes me feel more secure and it makes me happy that more people are going to have jobs, too,” she said.

Johnson hopes the hundreds of workers who left their families in Spring Hill to work at other GM locations in the downturn will be able to claim one of the new jobs and return home.

Many are trying to work their way back. Hundreds of workers followed the Chevy Traverse when it went from Spring Hill to Lansing and others transferred to other plants to keep employment. Many opted to rent small apartments and commuted long hours on the weekends to see their families.

Local UAW officials said more than 300 people who had transfer rights have returned to Spring Hill, and others wanting to get back will have to follow protocol with the national UAW agreement.

Big turnaround

The once-small farming town turned major auto center was decimated after GM idled assembly operations at the end of 2009. That also was the year the bankrupt automaker killed off its Saturn brand, which it had launched with great fanfare and claims that it was a “new kind of car company” in which automaker and auto worker would forge a new, cooperative relationship.

GM’s largest manufacturing plant in North America never shut down completely in the downturn. But employment at the complex, once as high as 7,000, fell to below 1,000.

With a new UAW contract, GM resumed vehicle production at Spring Hill in fall 2012. GM invested in a flexible manufacturing operation it says could build any car or crossover. Today, about 180 employees assemble the Chevrolet Equinox at Spring Hill, one of of three GM sites building the popular crossover. One shift at the plant builds four-cylinder versions as needed, as well as special white-diamond color models.

There is lots of excitement and talk inside inside the plant, at the union hall and in town about the investments and hope of more jobs to come. While workers may not officially know until Wednesday or even later what vehicles they will build, construction already is underway to add two trim lines to the general assembly area.

“The buzz is focused on growth and having some new team members join us and get back to the size where we think we should be,” Plant Manager Ken Knight said. “The Equinox is a smaller program for this site.”

The massive complex — once a horse farm that is well landscaped with farmland and rolling hills along the highway — totals 6.9 million square feet on 2,100 acres. The facility also houses engine and stamping plants, plus injection molding and painting operations.

Spring Hill employs about 2,300 workers, including about 1,600 hourly, 300 salaried workers and about 400 from third parties. It has hired about 300 entry-level hourly workers in recent years.

“We’re hiring people out of the community today and we anticipate doing a lot more of that,” UAW Local 1853 President Tim Stannard said.

Overnight boom

Spring Hill was established in 1809 and for a long time was simply a small farming community.

That all changed in the mid-1980s when General Motors and a new brand it would call Saturn announced that the small car company would open a plant in what was farmland.

“This town overnight went from 900 people ... and one restaurant in town ... it went overnight almost to a town that was a bustling town of several thousand people,” said UAW Local 1853 Chairman Mike Herron.

Spring Hill’s population has swelled since. In 1980, Spring Hill’s population was just 986. By 2000, it had grown to 7,115. Today, the city is home to more than 32,000 and is one of the fastest growing areas of the state. The area that once had only a few businesses beyond a gas station and a local watering hole now has strip malls, a Home Depot, Olive Garden and more.

The first Saturn rolled off the production line in 1990 and the last Ions and Vues went off the line in March 2007. Most employees were without a job for about a year while the plant was retooled for Traverse production, which began in September 2008.

When the plant lost the Traverse and was idled, unemployment in Maury County soared. It hit 17.4 percent in June 2009 and in December stood at 14.6 percent. This past June, it was 7.5 percent.

Herron is hopeful employment at Spring Hill will grow substantially — and possibly double — once GM adds the two vehicles.

“The excitement level that’s in this area, the Middle Tennessee area right now is unbelievable,” he said. “Just the hint of the possibility of an announcement at this place has caused the phones to ring off the wall.”

Inside Spring Hill

GM’s Spring Hill Manufacturing facilities currently produce the Chevrolet Equinox and Ecotec four-cylinder engines. Stamping and plastic-molding operations also take place there.
Spring Hill has received significant investments in the past few years. Last August, $167 million in investments was added to the previously announced $183 million pledge for two future midsize vehicles. In 2011, GM invested $61 million to reopen the assembly plant as a flexible manufacturing operation.
Here are some milestones in the Spring Hill operations:
■July 1990: First Saturn SL Sedan rolls out of Spring Hill plant.
■2000: Ground broken for powertrain plant.
■2002: Production of Ecotec 4-cylinder begins for Saturn Vue and Ion.
■March 2007: Last Vue and Ion roll off line at Spring Hill.
■September 2008: Plant begins making Chevrolet Traverse.
■November 2009: Traverse production moves to Lansing; all vehicle assembly ceases for nearly three years.
■September 2012: Chevrolet Equinox production begins.
■April 2014: 4-millionth Ecotec engine built.
Source: General Motors Co.

Melissa Burden, The Detroit News, (313) 222-2319,

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Could You Charge a Smartwatch by Shaking It?

Smartwatches are cool. They can give you smartphone-like access to data without the phone. However, as
Uncle Ben said (Spider-Man’s uncle): “With great power in a smartwatch comes terrible battery life.” Ok, Uncle Ben didn’t actually say that – but he would have if he had a smartwatch. Also, I will admit that the battery life on the Pebble watch (seen above) isn’t so bad. But with more features in a watch, battery life can be an issue. Who wants to charge a watch every night like you have to do with your smartphone? “No one” is the correct answer. No one wants to keep charging a smartwatch.

I have an older watch that is completely mechanical (no battery). This watch is really cool because you don’t wind it up. Instead, there is a weight inside that moves back and forth as you walk around and do stuff. This moving weight essentially winds the watch up for you. Could something like this work for a smartwatch?

Electromagnetic Charging

A mechanical watch stores energy in a spring – but this isn’t true for an electric watch. Those need an electric battery. One way to charge a battery is with a permanent magnet and a coil of wire. This is the basic idea in these “shake lights”. You just shake the flashlight for a little bit and then the flashlight works for a while.

Here is a diagram of the basic setup for one of these flashlights.
Summer 14 Sketches key
As the magnet moves into the coil of wire (from shaking the light), there is a changing magnetic field. This changing magnetic field induces an electric current in the wire to charge the battery – actually I think the shake light uses a capacitor instead.

But how much energy could get from something like this? It wouldn’t be hard to build a small model to measure output energy values, but let me just approximate instead. Really, all the energy comes from a change in kinetic energy of the magnetic. Let’s say the magnet has a mass m and enters the coil with a velocity ofv1 then leaves with a velocity v2. The change in energy for this one motion would be:
La te xi t 1
Of course all of this energy wouldn’t actually go into charging the battery. That would only be true if the device was 100% efficient – which nothing is. However, I am just going to assume there is no energy loss. I’ll explain why after the calculation.

So how would this work in a smartwatch? It would be exactly the same, just smaller. You would have a smaller magnet and a smaller coil, but the idea would be the same. How about some estimates? Really, I just need three things. I need the mass of the magnet and the starting and ending velocities during the motion.

First, for the mass estimate. The Pebble smartwatch has a mass of 39 grams (including the watch band). I think a magnet mass of over 10 grams would just be a little crazy.

Second, I need the starting and ending velocity of the magnet. This is a bit more difficult. Let me start by approximating an arm swing. Suppose that the wrist moves 1 meter in 1 second in the process of an arm swing (yes, that is a fast and large swing). During this swinging motion, the wrist speeds up for half of that time and then slows down for the other half. This means that the the wrist (and watch) start from rest, move 0.5 meters in 0.5 seconds. I can write the average velocity as:
La te xi t 1
But this is just the average speed. Really, I want the final velocity during this part of the swing. If I assume a constant acceleration, I can write the average velocity as:
La te xi t 1
Since the initial velocity was zero, the final velocity would have to be twice the average – that puts it at 2 m/s. Note that this is the velocity of the watch at the midpoint in the swing. I will use this for the velocity of the magnet as it enters the coil. What about after leaving the coil? Realistically, the exiting velocity would just be a little bit slower than the beginning velocity. However, for this estimation I will say that it is going half the initial speed afterwards.

Using this, I get an energy of 0.015 Joules per arm swing. That’s great, but how much arm swinging would you need to charge a Pebble battery? This site on ifixit shows the Pebble battery as a 3.7 Volt with 130 mAh. This means that it could produce 130 mAmps at 3.7 Volts for 1 hour. In an electric circuit, power is current times voltage. With a time interval of 1 hour, I can find the energy in this battery.
La te xi t 1
Putting in the values for current, voltage and time, I get an energy of 1732 Joules.

So, how many arm swings would you need to charge the smartwatch? Since the battery stores 1732 Joules and you get 0.015 Joules per swing, I get 1.15 x 105 arm swings. Now that seems like a lot of arm swinging – but wait! You don’t have to do all of those swings at once (which would be impossible). In order to make this smartwatch work, you would need to charge it over the life of the battery. Let’s say the Pebble watch lasts 6 days without charging (which seems to be above the average length of time). How often would I need to swing my arm to get the number of swings needed?
La te xi t 1
Converting 6 days into seconds, I get a arm swing frequency of 0.22 swings per second. Ok, let’s adjust for sleeping time. If I sleep 6 hours a night then that would increase the swing rate to 0.29 swings per second or one swing every 3.37 seconds.

That still seems pretty high. If I just think about what I am doing right now, my arm isn’t swinging at all. I’m just typing. Sure, I walk around – but even then I don’t make giant swings with my arm. So, will this work? I am going to say no – unless you are a marathon runner, then you are all set.

How Could You Make it Work?

Let’s look back and see why this didn’t work. Consider the following:
  • I made lots of guesses and assumptions.
  • I suspected that this swinging to charge method wouldn’t work. So when I estimated values, I picked values that would give me the best possible case to charge the phone (estimate high on velocities and arm swings and stuff).
  • If the swing still doesn’t give enough energy in this case, it’s not going to work with a more realistic calculation.
It’s possible to build a sample wrist motion charger – it wouldn’t be too difficult. However, based on this calculation it would give a lower energy production than my 0.015 Joules per swing. And this is exactly why we do back of the envelope calculations (even though we don’t use envelopes).

But what could you do to increase the power production? Of course you could increase the mass of the magnet, but even doubling the mass wouldn’t really be enough. What about some other charging method? What about a wireless charger? I’m going to guess this wouldn’t work either – but I’ll take a shot at wireless charging in a future post.

By Rhett Allain,

Apple manufacturing costs spike to highest-ever levels, signaling 'iPhone 6' & 'iWatch' launches


Amit Daryanani of RBC Capital Markets noted in a research note provided to AppleInsider that Apple's manufacturing and component costs were up 18.5 percent year over year in the June quarter.

In addition, Apple will spend another $5.6 billion on other obligations such as tooling, capital assets, advertising, and research and development, representing a huge 300 percent year over year increase. While R&D spiked $425 million last quarter to reach a record $1.6 billion, Daryanani also took note of the "material spike" in commitments for tooling.

With Apple spending more money than ever on tooling ahead of this fall's anticipated product launches, Daryanani speculates that the company is spending ahead of the debut of not only its next-generation iPhone, but also a new product category that he believes could be the long-rumored "iWatch." Apple is expected to unveil its next iPhone at a media event on Sept. 9, while a separate event to showcase the company's first wearable device is rumored to take place in October.

While Apple's spending and commitments continue to grow, so does the company's cash: As of the end of the June quarter, Apple had $164.5 billion, with $137.7 billion of it held overseas and the remaining $28.6 billion in the U.S. Apple's overall cash balance was up $17.9 billion year over year, a 12 percent increase.

Apple is also guiding for its fiscal 2014 capital expenditures to reach a total of $11 billion, with $4.8 billion left to be spent. Apple expects to spend $500 million to build 20 new retail stores and remodel 15 more, with the remaining $10.5 billion to product tooling, manufacturing, process equipment and other items.

RBC Capital Markets has maintained its $110 price target for shares of AAPL, which it has held since late July. With $164 billion in cash amounting to a whopping $22 per share, and a "busy fall" expected, Daryanani continues to believe that shares of Apple are undervalued at their current levels. 

By Neil Hughes,

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How One US Factory Owner Fought Cheap Imports

Much of U.S. manufacturing has been decimated in the past decade by less expensive imports from China, but it didn't necessarily have to be that way, according to a compelling new book by journalist Beth Macy.

Macy's book, "Factory Man," tells the story of one manufacturer who fought back. John Bassett III, a wealthy scion of a furniture dynasty in southwestern Virginia, responded to a flood of overseas goods by modernizing his factory and restructuring its products. More controversially, he successfully petitioned the U.S. government for protective tariffs on imported Chinese furniture, alienating many of his retailer customers. Those efforts kept his company, Vaughan-Bassett, in business.

Still, small factory towns in southwestern Virginia and North Carolina were decimated, as Macy illustrates. Forty percent of residents in Galax, Virginia qualify for food stamps. Old factory conveyor belts are now used to distribute groceries in food pantries.
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