Thursday, December 08, 2005

Cambridge Comment on Smart Manufacturing

We sat down with Dr. Tim Minshall, Lecturer in Technology Management at Cambridge University and presenter at PEIE's forthcoming Smart Manufacturing Conference (23 - 25 January 2006, Muscat Inter-Continental Hotel). We spoke to him about various manufacturing issues - this is what he had to say:

PM: How long have you been involved in manufacturing?

I have worked in various manufacturing related activities for 10 years. Since 1998, my work has been focused on support for the creation and growth of new technology-based firms and their partnerships with established firms.

PM: How do you see manufacturing changing over the next 20 years?

A. Changes in the business models of manufacturing firms with increasing value add being generated through the provision of services and support activities to enhance the products themselves.

B. Increased emphasis on higher value manufacturing.

PM: Which emerging technology do you think has the most potential to change manufacturing?

RFID has the potential to bring great changes to supply chain management.

PM: What are your thoughts on the issue of knowledge transfer from academia to industry?

Universities can play a key role in increasing the productivity and competitiveness of a national economy. There is a wide range of ways in which universities can transfer knowledge to industry. These include: the provision of skilled graduates; making available the results of publicly funded research; consultancy and ‘soft’ knowledge transfer activities (such as student projects); provision of ‘packaged’ knowledge (through licensing of intellectual property); and the formation of spin-out businesses.

PM: There’s a lot in the press lately about how universities need to become more responsive to the needs of business ... what are your thoughts/experiences on this?

In the UK, great strides have been taken in this area. What is interesting is that different universities are developing different approaches to working with industry appropriate for their particular regional economic needs. Companies and universities are finding that there are many different ways in which they can work together.

PM: What type of involvement would you like to see business have with universities? What opportunities do you see?

There are so many ways in which universities and companies can work together. What is needed is a clear understanding of the ways in which each can help the other and this relies upon good communication and the building of long term value-adding partnerships. One of the areas I find particularly interesting is the ways in which smaller companies can benefit from working with universities.

PM: You’ve visited hundreds of plants around the world. While the industries, products, and equipment vary, what are the common principles that guide the best manufacturers?

I would say it is evidence throughout of the business that there is a clear focus on delivering what the customer really wants

PM: Dell hit in excess of US$45 billion in annual revenue and is growing at nearly 20% yearly, and seems well on its way toward surpassing its goal of US$60 billion within the next few years. And it's not letting up. Still relentlessly striving to get better faster, Dell intends to slash US$2 billion in costs. CFO Jim Schneider has indicated that much of the cuts will come from manufacturing operations and the supply chain. In your opinion, is speed the ultimate competitive weapon?

Speed alone isn't the key. It is the ability to respond efficently and effectively to changing customer demands.

PM: Do small manufacturers need big-name supporters?

Not necessarily. Small companies operating in specfic, niche markets can be extremely successful and profitable. These niches can be quite substantial. In and around Cambridge, there are companies that remain small but which are serving highly profitable and global markets. In some cases, the use of partnerships with large, established firms can be extremely helpful to smaller firms. However, making such partnerships work to the benefit of both parties is very hard. This is an area we are working on at present with a range of industrial partners.

PM: Whether you're running a company with 3 people or 3,000 people, you have to hire the best engineers, the best marketers and the best production workers. The products you make, the programs you have, the mission you espouse should make people feel good about working for you. In your view, are corporate values a real motivator?


PM: We’re living in difficult times. Indeed, what do you do when the business world as you've always known it simply ceases to be? When new competitors and new technologies explode the industry economics? When everything that worked before won't work - and can't work ever again?

The issue of coping with ‘disruptive innovations’ is not new. If you look back over the centuries you can see time and time again how the established order in industry has been overturned. The difference now is that things are happening at a much faster pace and companies have to be constanlty looking for the distruptions on the horizon.

PM: If we don't have to own it, let's not own it. And if we do have to own it, let's reduce the risk by sharing it. How does this kind of thinking apply to today’s manufacturing sector?
The ‘make versus buy’ decision is at the core of any manufacturing business. Advances in communication and transport, and national cost differentials have certainly made global outsourcing commonplace. What is particularly interesting is to consider which elements of the manufacturing business do not get outsourced, and how certain functions often benefit from being kept in close proximity to one another (such as R&D and production).

Further information on Dr. Tim Minshall can be viewed at: