The Retail Apocalypse Has Arrived

Store CLosing

At the start of 2018, America has the lowest unemployment and the best economy in more than a decade. The stock market is at new highs. It feels like the economy is strong. But… that’s not the way it looks. On your own main street, or favorite mall, or nearest shopping district… do you see empty stores? A lot of empty stores? What’s going on? How can a booming economy have a record number of empty stores?

2017 set a record for retail store closings. Radio Shack, Toys r Us, Payless, Gymboree, and True Religion were familiar names in malls across the country. Now they are either filing for bankruptcy or have already closed their doors. 2017 had 8,000 store closures, and 2018 may beat that record.

This is the “Retail Apocolypse.” But it’s not just one thing. It is the culmination of many influences, a “Perfect Storm” of cultural change. Let’s break it down…

Clothing: American clothing has changed. First, we buy less clothing. Partially because casual clothing became the norm at work. We no longer need one wardrobe for work and one for the weekend. Partially because millennials see a big wardrobe as environmentally destructive. All of that leads to the second change. In 1959, Americans spent 26% of their discretionary money on apparel and footwear, compared to 11% now.

This is more than a passing fad. American clothing is largely made offshore, regardless of the brand name. Without the cost of malls and department stores, the same items online can be sold for less.

Online: Why shop online? Convenience is a big issue. Going to the store often takes time. Waiting on a line to pay also takes time. With empty stores, line waiting is often much shorter, but we are also more impatient. Likewise, even large stores cannot stock every item in every size and color. Online, you can quickly search every store in the world for a hard to find item. And, of course, you not only get a better price, you can shop at any time of the day or night.

Ten years ago, few consumers shopped on the Internet. We downloaded videos, emailed, and just begun to try streaming media. In 2000, only half of one percent of us retail sales were online. By 2016, online sales rose to 9%. By 2022 that will double. As more sales move online, traffic in brick and mortar stores will fall. Empty stores are not about the failure of brick and mortar, they are about the success of online merchants.

Amazon is one of the most successful online merchants. But much of their success comes from their merchant services, where many formerly brick and mortar businesses sell their goods online, through Amazon. Not all of the store that closed went out of business. Some just migrated their businesses to where the customers are… online!

Walmart: Not that long ago, Walmart led the last retail expansion. They wiped out many small stores, especially in rural areas. Now, with 98% of their sales still in brick and mortar, Walmart is scrambling to develop an online strategy. It is possible for them to move 20% or 30% of their sales online in the next few years, but it will require cannibalizing and closing a large number of stores.

Bankruptcy: Other stores failed to develop an online model. Big chain stores like Toys R Us are going bankrupt in large numbers. Restaurant chains are dropping so quickly it’s hard to keep track. We can expect dozens of well-known chain stores to expire in the next year.

Malled In America: Real estate developers contributed to the Retail Apocalypse by building too many malls. Research from Cowen and Company shows that mall growth outpaced population growth in America by 40%. US malls were built at 5 times faster than malls in the UK. Ten times faster than in Germany. At some point, that bubble had to burst, and it has.

Anchors: When a new mall is built, the largest and/or best-known tenant is known as the “Anchor”.  This store attracts customers that help support smaller stores in the mall. Intelligently recruited tenants are supposed to create higher foot traffic and profitability for the entire mall. If this theory is right, however, when an anchor leaves the mall could collapse. Which seems to be happening.

Department stores have been rethinking the “Anchor” model. Big department stores have to pay for big leases and must tie up a lot of capital in inventory. And no matter how large the inventory, when you want to get a specific shoe, in your size, it may not be in the store. Online merchants have more merchandise in more sizes and colors. Smaller stores that only stock best selling items, PLUS an online presence, can be a more effective combination.

JC Penny is exploring new options. A store today averages 100,000 square feet. Like other department stores, JC Penny offers “store within store” merchants (especially in cosmetics). A 40,000 square foot store, with proportionally smaller “store within store” merchants, are being tested. If new and redesigned stores can dramatically reduce rent, staffing, and inventory, saving stores from closure. But JC Penny is often an Anchor store. If Anchors downsize, will other mall retailers have the foot traffic to survive?

Cycles: We are in the middle of a new retail cycle. But it’s not the first cycle. The first cycle was probably a bit more than a century ago when Department stores arose in Chicago and New York. The second cycle was caused by designers leaving the department store and creating their own brands in malls. The third cycle was the rise of the superstore, especially Walmart, which eliminated many smalltown stores. We are now in the fourth cycle, which started at least a decade ago when the earliest online merchants connected with customers.

What will the fifth retail cycle look like? The next cycle will kick off when most of our buying is online and mobile. We will buy a lot of products by subscription, or through smart devices that know that we’re out of something. More and more, our behavior will be monitored and our needs anticipated. Because we are ordering on like, and not shopping in a store, more of our goods will be shipped to us.

In cities, that means more urban crowding from more delivery trucks. It also means A LOT of boxes and extra shipping materials. And a much bigger carbon footprint as goods are shipped around the country, instead of carried home from a store a few blocks away.

The fifth retail cycle will be led by whoever wins the war between Walmart, Amazon, and foreign competition like Alibaba. As more millennials “cocoon” at home, working remotely, having food delivered, and generally not leaving their apartments or homes for days at a time, just about everything will be ordered online.

Post-Apocalypse: The bubble has burst and shopping centers and main streets have too many empty retail spaces. In New York City, Steinway street in Queens is a major shopping area. A decade ago, before the global financial collapse, if you wanted to open a retail store you might have to wait for years until space was available. A couple of weeks ago I make a quick survey.

Blocks in New York come in two sizes, Streets and Avenues. From street to street is between 10 and 20 blocks to a mile. Between Avenues it is just 5 or 6 blocks to a mile. Even so, when I counted stores on both sides of one block, I counted 13 empty storefronts. I knew that I would two or three, but the number did surprise me. I tried the next block and counted 17 vacancies.

Unlike other economic downturns, the businesses that remain are doing quite well. This isn’t a typical downturn. Customer preferences have changed. Services… barbers, nail shops, beauty parlors… continue to thrive. Banks are closing obsolete full-service locations, but are rolling out a new generation of more capable ATM’s. Millenials, however, have leapfrogged ATM’s instead using mobile banking apps.

The “Apocolypse” is not a single event or even a moment in time. It is an ongoing disruption and redefinition of retail. Waiting on a line in a big department store is an annoyance. Shopping for the perfect sushi knife in your PJs at 3am is great. And Sad. (Can we call it “Grad”?) New forms of business may fill the empty retail spaces. New technology from Amazon and Google that lets us walk into a store, grab what we want and just walk out, could revitalize retail.

Retail is still very much alive and growing. Over the last century, the definition of retail has changed, and it will continue to change. Just as our needs and expectations change. A few years ago I couldn’t have imagined that there could be so high a demand for “nail shops” for manicures. Who knows what sort of services are about to take over retail?


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Is the Real Crisis Too Few Jobs Or Too Many Workers?


Robots are coming, and they’re going to take your job! Sure. We all know that. Cars will drive themselves. New factories will have all robots and no workers. Your manager will be replaced by an AI. Half of all jobs will go away. Forever. The age of “work” may be coming to an end. Of course, there is another theory.

In 1927 the global population reached 2 billion. Today it is 7.6 billion. By 2100, the population will peak at 11 billion and then fall. 25 nations already have zero growth or a declining population. Worse still, as the world’s population ages, more of the population will be retired. The world is facing a global worker shortage!

A crisis is headed our way, but which one? Will it be too few workers or too few jobs? It’s like a plot from Star Trek “Discovery”, with America caught between alternatives universes! How did this happen? Let’s go back in time and see!

Post War: World War II changed everything! Workers once relied on personal skills and instinct, and productivity came from personal determination and drive. After WWII, science and technology took over. Germany might engineer better tanks and the UK could be more innovative (penicillin, radar, jet engines, computers, even the “Jerry can”). But it was America productivity that won the war.

Before World War II, airplanes were produced by the handsful. By the end of the war, planes were built by the tens of thousands, with each new model dramatically superior to the one it replaced. In just a few years, propeller-driven biplanes were replaced with jets.

The same techniques that won the war were adopted to consumer manufacturing. Washing machines, vacuum cleaners, motorized lawn mowers, and an endless catalog of luxury items became affordable enough for every family.

Peter Drucker, the most influential management theorist of the last century, said that productivity in America rose 50 fold during the 20th century. Everyone could have a job, work a mere 40 hour week, and afford the newest consumer goods. Technology had delivered the age of leisure!

Globalization: The war had destroyed much of the world. America, however, was protected by the natural barrier of the Atlantic ocean. With zero war damage and huge factories built for the war, America was in the perfect position to rebuild the world.

In rebuilding the war-ravaged world, America replaced many Europe brands around the world, becoming the “Factory of the World”, and the Global superpower of the 20th century. But how would America, with just 5% of the world’s population, get the rest of the world back on its feet? The answer was… PRODUCTIVITY!

Technology and scientific management would deliver unheard of levels of productivity. America alone could produce more goods than the entire world once did! The cost of just about everything fell, and prosperity spread across the globe. Everyone wins… at e\least for a while.

The Treadmill: Prosperity did follow, but the world would not stand still. The Population was rising. In 1804 world population was 1 billion, in  1927 it was 2 billion, and in 1960 it reached 3 billion. The world didn’t just have more people, the speed of population growth was accelerating. The speed of growth was accelerating. Developed nations worried about their standard of living, and developing nations worried if they had enough to eat. As we would see in the 20th century, a hungry nation is never very far from revolution, and prosperity does bring peace.

Factory productivity rose still higher. Agricultural scientists created a “green revolution” that doubled the world’s food supply. There was enough for everyone, but a continuously rising population meant continuous productivity improvements in every business. Factories were automated, workers were freed for more complex tasks, and education standards were raised. A new degree, the MBA, was created to drive higher productivity. Today, every corporation has MBAs and departments to improve productivity.

Continuous improvement not only made goods cheaper and more plentiful, it shrank electronics that could fill a room into a device that fits in your pocket. TVs, computers, cellphones, tablets, and other electronics followed Moore’s law, cutting the cost in half every year or two.

End Of The Begining:  Global population will peak at 11 billion, in 2100. African nations will continue growing for some time, but at least 25 nations have already reached zero growth or have a declining population. But this understates the problem.

America’s population is 325 million and will to grow to 400 million by 2100. But with older citizens and fewer children born, our population should have already declined. Only immigration has kept America growing, preventing massive worker shortages. This could change tomorrow if we rewrite our immigration policy.

Turning Point: We need a growing population because we’re aging. The retired portion of our population is growing. Older citizens need more services. In 1960 just 5% of our economy was in healthcare. By 2025 it will rise to 20%. Restaurants, hotels, house cleaning, and other services have expanded, requiring new workers.

When our workforce transformed from agricultural to factories and services, many ex-farm workers moved from the agricultural South to the industrial North. In the 1970’s, tens of millions of women who were previously excluded from work (and college) joined the workforce. But it still wasn’t enough.

We added computers, and automated, and offshored work. We even turn a blind eye to an estimated 11 million illegal immigration, who performed work that no longer attracted Americans (agriculture, fast food, construction, and caring for our homes). Any serious reductions in immigration (legal and illegal), and we would have a huge hole in the workforce.

Crunch the Numbers: In the mid-1970s, the speed of population growth peaked and then slowed. Today’s growth is just half of that of the ’70s. But corporate expectations were developed during that “peak” period. And we followed a simple system… productivity brought new jobs, new jobs brought more employment, and more employment delivered prosperity. But what happens when productivity continues to speed up, while the market grows more slowly?

Robot Revolution: Early automation replaced human muscle with machines. Think about how much easier it is to work around your house with an electric sander than a piece of sand paper. Add to that artificial intelligence (AI), and you can replace knowledge workers like lawyers, programmers, doctors, accountants, and managers. If a powered screwdriver is better than a manual one, think about a screwdriver that you just point at the work and it gets done. That’s what automation plus AI will deliver.

A few years ago, an industrial robot cost $150,000. But it needed an additional $300,000 to $450,000 for programming. To perform one job, in one factory. Change the work (even slightly) or move the robot to a new location, and you need to reprogram the robot.

Today’s robots cost less, and are “smart”. They can work out little issues on their own. For bigger tasks, another AI writes most of the programming, rather than relying on expensive human programmers.  This is a gamechanger, lowering the cost and increasing the span of jobs suitable for automation. That’s why experts expect robots to wipe out at least half of the world’s jobs, in just 20 to 30 years.

Our Future: Due to its inexpensive labor, China became the land of outsourcing, China is where most of the world’s “stuff” is made. But the cost of labor has been rising. Now their population is hitting the tipping point where it will shrink. By 2100 China’s workforce will plunge from 1 billion to just 500 million, while the market they serve will more than double in size. Just to keep up, they need a 400% increase in productivity.

The solution is… automation, robots and AI’s. China already buys more industrial robots than any other nation. Now, China is ramping up to be the world’s largest robotic manufacturer. A million robots will be sold every year by the early-2020’s and ten million a year just a few years later.

If each robot replaces just 5 workers, in less than a  decade robots will replace 50 million workers every year. China intends to retain the title of “Factory of the World”, until at least the end of the century. China can only do this if they implement the most advanced automation. That means that China will consume almost every robot they produce for the next few years. By the mid-2020s they can then shift their attention to global sales. China will build… and control… most of the world’s robotic workforce.

Happily Ever After?: Robots will take over. Period. The real question is how fast and with how much disruption. The speed of new automation probably won’t match the speed of workforce decline. But we should try to match these two trends so that disruption doesn’t become disaster.

In the last century, the 40 hour work week became standard. Much of the disruption in our century could be defused by implementing a 30 hour work week. Of course, working fewer hours could raise costs, but adding all those robots will lower cost. So, it’s a Goldilocks world… too hot, too cold, and just right.  This could all end with a happily ever after 22nd century. We just have to make the right choices!

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Written In Sand… The Next Global Shortage has Arrived!

Sand MiningAs the world becomes more globalized, international projects are getting bigger. As a result, the most unexpected shortages can suddenly appear. A few years ago, China went on a building spree, creating a global shortage of scaffolding and construction cranes. As cities compete with farms and recreation for water, shortages are inevitable. But now we face a shortage that could break the foundations of the global economy… sand.

Sand? Yes, that’s right… sand! Sand is a critical component of concrete. And concrete, along with steel, is the literal foundation of civilization. Over the last 20 years, the world was on a building spree. Skyscrapers are now a common sight around the world. Skyscrapers consume a huge amount of concrete. Add to that, concrete plazas, concrete sewers, tunnels, sidewalks, and bridges. Cities need concrete….

… and concrete needs sand! But beaches and deserts are filled with sand? Why can’t that be used for construction? Ironically, desert sand is too fine and too round. It makes an inferior grade of concrete. You might get away with it for a wall around a house, but not in a skyscraper.

Sea sand has its own problems. It may be made of tiny stones (good) or shells (not as good), but it’s all contaminated with salt which is very bad for concrete. There are ways of getting the salt out, but it’s expensive.

The best sand is either river sand or sand deposited under relatively primal forests (by extinct rivers). Mining that sand can be very destructive. And expensive, since the law often requires miners to return the land to its original state. America as just one remaining sand mine, which is set to close in 2020. The sand shortage is a major issue for construction, but it is going to get much worse! And here is why…

Middle East: Some of the world’s tallest buildings are in  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Super skyscrapers are very new to this part of the world. Therefore, there is very little data to know how safe these buildings will be. Especially if local managers cut corners on safety to meet building schedules. If there are problems, it won’t be in the early years, it will happen after the buildings have been around for awhile, and then have to withstand a major storm or an earthquake.

If the right sand is not available, construction will be halted. The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, cost $1.76 billion and took 6 years to build. That’s $800,000 a day, but during the middle of the project costs probably peaked around $2 million a day. Not every building is the Burj, but it is easy to see how managers can fold under the pressure, and make bad decisions. Including the use of questionable sand. Similarly, if problems show up later… such as cracks in walls and foundations… will these problems be reported?

The United Arab Emirates has also built whole new islands off of their coast. These islands (starting with Palm island) are for the ultra rich. These islands consumed 94 million cubic meters of sand, scooping up virtually all of the sand within 6 nautical miles of Dubai’s coast. How did they use sea sand? Simple, they didn’t turn the sand into concrete, they just pushed piles of sand together to form islands. This was driven by aesthetics, not engineering.  That means constant maintenance for these man-made islands.

China: While Palm island is a modern miracle of construction, China is still the world’s biggest user of concrete, and will be for decades to come. In less than two decades, China has built over 500 new cities. While China has slowed down in building new cities, they will still keep the global demand for sand high.

Illegal Mining: India is on a similar building spree, driving up competition for local sand.  In fact, India has coined a new term, “Sand Mafia”, to describe all of the illegal sand mining around India and the neighboring nations.  Unfortunately, a lot of local warlords have learned that tearing up the countryside to steal sand it is a very quick way to make a lot of money.

Climate Change: “Storms of the Century” now happen several times a year. During a storm, sand is scoured from beaches and dunes and swept into the sea. Further inland, flooding destroys homes, and rebuilding requires sand. Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico have put further pressure on the global sand market. As the weather gets wilder, demand will continue to rise.

Fracking: The price of oil is rising! With oil is above $50 a barrel, closed wellheads are reopening, especially in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. In the Bakken, oil is Fracked, requiring Fracking fluid… mostly water and sand. More of America’s power, for at least the next two decades, will rely on Fracking, and sand.

Belt and Road Initiative: China is leading the world’s largest construction project, the Belt and Road Initiative (or BRI).  This project runs through 65 nations, with tens of thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of new railroad lines, and scores of seaports, with an estimated cost of $8 trillion dollars. The BRI will require more sand than anything in the history of the world.

Silk Road Economy: The BRI is staggeringly huge, but it is nothing compared to all of the projects that it will spin off. The BRI, also called the New Silk Road, will accelerate the globalization of developed and developing nations while kickstarting the development of the poorest nations on earth. The BRI will build new railroads and seaports, but these economic centers will, in turn, employ tens of millions of people. This means hundreds of new cities will be built, along with thousands of power plants and factories, and scores of millions of new homes. All of which require sand, steel, and concrete.

Alternatives: We’ve exhausted the world’s supply of sand. Yet, over the next decade, we will accelerate construction. Economic pressure will force the world to open up new sand mining sites. The demand will be so high that even banned practices, such as dredging rivers for sand, may return. But there is an alternative! if you cannot find sand, make it!

For years, it has been possible make artificial sand from crushed rocks, but the quality is often uneven. Artificial sand improved over time, but skyscrapers keep getting taller and specifications for sand more demanding. Construction sand needs to be of ever higher quality, which is increasingly difficult to find.

A new form of synthetic sand is made from glass and can be made to very high standards. But it is not yet clear how much glass/sand can be produced. Only a fraction of waste glass is collected and sent to recycling facilities, and only a third of the glass that is collected is actually recycled. Glass based sand may substitute for the natural kind, but we don’t yet know how much we can make or what it will cost.

We shouldn’t worry about the price too much. The cost of sand has gone through as many ups and downs as the price of oil. In 2016 the cost of a ton of sand was $15-$20 but rose to $40 in late 2017. That’s not even the peak price of $60 to $70 a ton in 2014, China was still building new cities and fracking was big. Once the BRI ramps up, construction managers will pay any price to get the sand they need.

The Future of Sand: The economic forces that are driving the need for sand will become much greater in the early 2020s. Yet, at that time America will close it’s last active sand mine, for environmental issues. There is no simple or cheap solution to the sand shortage. Crushed rock and glass based sand will help, but it probably won’t be enough.

If there were more forms of industrial or post-consumer waste that could substitute for sand, it would be a win-win. A few years ago when China was at the peak of it’s building spree, it had a similar shortage of portland cement, another critical ingredient in concrete. While China lacked portland cement, it had a chemically similar waste product from coal power plants… fly ash. China successfully turned this nuisance waste product into a valuable new resource.

Other coal waste products, such as bottom ash, are being explored as replacements or partial replacements for sand. Other industrial waste products from the iron and copper smelting, also appear to be usable in commercial concrete. With more research, many more materials are likely to be found.

Turning waste glass into synthetic sand is a good start, but we need to find many other waste products to make high-quality concrete. Use of industrial waste would be highly y beneficial in Eastern Europe, where decades of Soviet-era coal and smelting tailings might finally be removed and turned into One Band One Road Initiative construction projects.

Cleaning up the environment and creating new construction jobs is a win/win. But if we want to keep the economy humming and avoid the next big shortage, we need to speed up research and create sand alternatives. If not, well… civilization is going to need a new foundation!


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How to Avoid The Latest Outsourcing Dangers In 2018!

Money Case

(Previously published in OUTSOURCE, 01/04/2018, Updated 3/25/2018)

By now everyone knows about outsourcing, the big issue of the 20th century that revolutionized the 21st century! But outsourcing didn’t start in the 20th century. In the 18th and 19th century Europe developed Imperialism, setting up colonies around the world. These colonies provided the language skills and education systems that made offshoring possible.  

If you look at the map of outsourcing, it matches the map of European colonies from a century earlier. India was the first to lay claim to being a destination for knowledge work outsourcing. Hong Kong, however, has an even stronger case for being the 1st global financial outsourcing destination… even though that claim is slightly muddled by Hong Kong being the “property” of England up to the 20th century, and later becoming China’s financial powerhouse.

Such changes may be the fate of ex-colonies. Still, it is undeniable that the business acumen gained from a century of British colonialism in Hong Kong provided the foundation for mainland China building hundreds of cities specifically for outsourcing. Pakistan and Bangladesh, which rose as destination centers for textile outsourcing, were formerly part of India.

In 1980’s the United States focused textile outsourcing on South America, which has former Spanish and Portuguese colonies. These colonies had their laws, financial structures, culture, etc. shaped and adapted to European institutions. 

After price, the most important factor selecting a location for outsourcing was Language. In manufacturing, offshore managers need at least a moderate grasp of your language (usually, English). Contact centers go further, requiring each worker to have at least rudimentary English skills. Financial outsourcing and knowledge work required both a solid understanding of colloquial English plus expertise with the unique terms used in Investment Banking, Research, Accounting, Trading, or Healthcare.

Before the US became the financial center of the world, the UK Invented the financial today’s world. Today’s world is divided between the UK running European trading and finance, and America dominating most of the rest of the world. In the early 20th century, the financial world spoke English, French, German and other Western languages, with English as the undisputed king of the financial world.

By the end of the century, China will be the worlds largest economy and the financial leader. Chinese will undoubtedly become the second language of finance. Someday. But not yet. What is surprising is that after the dominance of English and before the dominance of Chinese, the financial world will need to learn German.

German? Yep! Big changes (big, BIG changes) are about to rewrite the rules of Wall Street, even changing the languages we speak. The first change is the Brexit. If you haven’t been following this, back in June of 2016, the UK were unhappy about how the European Union worked. Many felt that they were paying into a system that did not give back enough jobs and benefits to be worthwhile.

One improbable event followed another, and somehow the UK voted to leave the EU. Every economist, financial expert, and pundit said it would be massively expensive and politically risky to leave the EU, but it didn’t matter. The UK had until March of 2019 to complete their exit. If they don’t complete the exit, in April they will not be able to trade goods, move money across a border, or even visit another EU nation. At least that’s the threat.

There were questions if it was feasible, but on December 7th, 2017 a key agreement was settled, and the Brexit moved forward and newer agreements have moved them past the point of no return, but banks and financial firms cannot wait to see the fine details for life after the Brexit. Instead, UK financial firms are moving their headquarters to the EU before regulations are finalized in 2019. This ensures continued work with the EU, regardless of the final agreement between the UK and the EU.

Where will the UK’s financial firms go? Predominantly… Frankfurt. That means new work rules, new regulations, massive retraining and… German? Between 75,000 and 300,000 professional jobs are expected to migrate from London to Frankfurt. Let’s get back to this a little later, first let’s look at the second big change, MiFID II.

On January 3rd, 2018 MiFID II, a set of European regulations to ensure transparency in stock trading, become the law for all of the EU and UK. Formerly, when you bought stocks you were charged a fee for the transaction and were given access to “free” research. For decades this “free” research allowed the trading firms to decide the sort of research customers would need. The result? Research is concentrated in a few big firms.

Companies like Apple have 50 analysts, while others are lucky to have 1. The top 15 Investment Banks produce 40,000 research reports every week, but surveys show that less than 1% are actually read. This “throwaway” research costs billions of dollars to produce and increases the cost of stock transactions.

Now, unless trades can continue to provide free research without billing for it, customers will have a stronger say over what research is produced in 2018, and possibly over what it costs.

We can be certain that a third, half or even more of the research positions in the UK and possibly the US will disappear. Add that to the already high (50%) reduction in researcher positions over the last decade. This is just the biggest and latest step in a long process. Of course, MiFID will have other results.

MiFID II is a European regulation, but it will be followed by many US firms. Otherwise, they must follow two separate and incompatible sets of regulations. Very large financial firms, with multi-million dollar research costs, are discussing the virtues of building their own research departments.

However, big market data services… Thompson, Bloomberg, Moody’s… have incentivized the consolidation of global research departments by offering a lower price per seat. With half or more of the “seats” going away, can firms stay in business?

Changes in long-established rules, a dramatic drop in research positions, a shift from London to Frankfurt, and… that little language problem. Some seasoned British financial professionals will become Expats, and move to Germany, but new financial professionals are likely to be hired in Europe. The language of the financial world is about to be diversified. But what about the jobs already offshored from the UK to India?   

India has been hugely successful in offshoring> With English language work. Outside of English, success has been more limited. The British are very used to Indian English. Others find communication more challenging. Likewise, when faced with other European languages, or even accents (such as Scottish), communications slow and mistakes rise. Other languages have been piloted in India, but the results have rarely justified moving into production. Will India lose projects, or are there alternatives?

India could rely on its programming expertise, and integrate translation technology into offshore operations. AI translation could crack the language barrier. Unfortunately, while India creates a great deal of innovative technology, it is rarely patented by Indian firms. Instead, outsourcing clients usually own the technology. With the possible exception of IBM, outsourcers have not attempted to create an Indian translation software franchise.

Without Indian translation expertise, non-English work is not “anchored” to India. That makes it a prime target for China, for several reasons. First, China is investing in translation technology and is fanatical about patents. While China has not announced any specific plans for translation, they have announced plans to be the world leader in Artificial Intelligence. Translation is a sub-category of AI. Already a leader in search engines and robotics, China has plans to buy billions of dollars of robotics and AI firms. It would be a simple matter to scoop up a translation firm. 

The UK relationship with Hong Kong is as deep as the connection between the UK and India, allowing for a significant extension of financial work offshore. Of course, Hong Kong is also a direct path through to outsourcing in mainland China.

While India has created world-class Universities (IIT and IIM), it has failed to reform the overall quality of education. Outside of technology schools, China is not (yet?) known for its top-tier Universities, it has significantly reformed elementary, secondary and undergraduate schools, as well as adding at least 10 million new English speaking workers. 

The “change agenda” for 2018 is already overflowing. Dealing with MiFID, moving headquarters, dealing with new languages and regulations AND moving to new outsourcing providers is a lot to take on. In all likelihood, it is more than the Financial world can manage. By the second half of 2018, we can expect disruptions in the day to day operations, including outsourcing. Here are the five key areas to closely manage…

Client Contacts: Outsourcing firms spend years developing relationships with their clients. Client contacts are highly influential. Realistically, MiFID driven terminations will result in outsourcing programs without a known contact, especially in research programs! Big Investment Banks expect to lose half or more of their research staff. Even those that stay, may be reassigned. Expand your contacts before clients make staff changes.

Shifting Priorities: Outsourcing may still be a priority, but may other items will be added to their priority list. Expect more regular meetings to be moved or suspended. Ensure that all management reports are on time and you are ready to meet customers on short(er) notice. Continue to work as normal, but prepare for drastic changes in your program. In the past, a drop in staffing at your customer meant more work. There might be a temporary addition to outsourcing, but it is likely to be transitional rather than permanent.

Eliminated Positions: Research is ground zero for budget and staff reductions. Expect that many programs will shrink, merge, or be eliminated by the end of the year. Some of you may be thinking, “Your numbers MUST be wrong! The stock market is reaching new records. How could their budgets be down?”

Unfortunately, 40% of the trades made on the stock exchange are for indexed funds. Indexed funds are based on a market basket of stock, such as the NASDAQ. Since this is just a fund based on the stocks in an exchange, it requires no stock pickers, no funds managers, and no research. As much as 70% of market activity is expected to be generated by indexed funds by 2025.

As the market moves towards products that don’t use research, plus a dramatic reduction in the number of reports for the remaining funds that do use research,  we can expect major reductions in these departments.

New Positions: While the overall direction will be towards smaller outsourcing programs, with less staff… there may be new opportunities. Big fund managers, like Vanguard, are considering building their own research departments.

This may not replace all lost positions, but it will open up new positions for new clients. However, as fewer research reports are produced, only the best-crafted reports will remain. This could lead to consolidation in outsourcing. To remain in research outsourcing, you must be the best there is!

Contract Renewals: The contracts you have today may no longer be a good fit by mid-2018. Be prepared for renegotiation well before the contract expiration. Be very careful about committing to anything you’re not absolutely sure you can perform. Like, learning new languages.

Well, the future has arrived and changes are already being implemented. 2018 is going to be immensely challenging, but it’s not the last challenge you will face. Next year could have even more challenges as the Brexit arrives!

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The Surprising End After 25 Years of Successful Outsourcing To Mexico



1992 signing of N.A.F.T.A. by US and Mexico

When President Trump was merely Candidate Trump, he said that he was able to negotiate with Automaker Ford to end outsourcing and keep jobs in America. HIs campaign got a big boost, even though Ford said that it did not make any agreement with Trump to change its plans to outsource to Mexico. In the end, Trump’s version of their discussion has won out. Ford has announced that it will not outsource the Ford Focus to Mexico. Instead, the Ford Focus will be built… in China.

Let’s think about this for a moment. China has a GDP of $10.9 trillion, vs. $1.12 trillion for Mexico. The US exports $115 billion in goods to China, compared to $262 billion to Mexico. Let’s put that another way. China imports American goods worth 1% of its economy, vs. Mexico importing 22% of their economy. Nearly a quarter of the goods bought in Mexico are made in America. Mexico is incredibly loyal to U.S. products. American goods are insignificant to the Chinese economy. So. Which trading partner would you value the most? Maybe the one on your southern border?

What did Trump name his book, “The Art Of The Deal?” I’m pretty sure that Trump’s book doesn’t say that you should keep insulting your best customer. Nor does it say that you should then publically state that you are going to break your trade relations with your best partner. That kind of talk can lead to things like… Ford moving to China.

Ford’s decision to build the Ford Focus in China is bigger than you think! By building the Focus in China, it hands over two important markets to China. First, transfers critical knowledge needed to advance China’s fledgling automotive market. But not quite as much as you would think. China has been building up its experience in building cars, working for Volkswagen, Buick, Toyota, Honda, Audi, BMW, Fiat, and others. Ford is just the icing on the cake.

More importantly, it fulfills China’s ambitions in Robotics. China is already the world’s biggest buyer of Industrial Robots. With a massive $250 billion infusion of cash last year for automation, China is becoming the world’s biggest BUYER of robotics companies and the largest manufacturer of robots. While the 250,000 industrial robots built every year in America, Europe, and Japan are counted, the 100,000 Chinese manufactured robots are invariably omitted.

Why are they forgotten? Because they are often used by the firms that make them, they don’t register on the global market. Just one firm, Foxconn (the world’s largest corporation), has talked about building a million robots on their own. That’s a LOT of robots!

If we add China’s robots to global sales we will start with 350,000 robots in 2016. If sales continue to grow at the 35% rate of the past few years, in 2020 1.2 million robots will be sold. If one robot can do the work of just 10 people… that means that 12 million people will be replaced in 2020. In 2025, 5 million robots will be built. At the same rate of replacement, that’s 50 million jobs. Carry that forward for a few years and you can see the massive impact robotics will soon have on employment.

That seems like an impossible number! Yet, consider your first smartphone. There were earlier mobile phones, but the iPhone started the trend of a phone having a screen, GPS, music playback and other features. The iPhone is 10 years old. Before that most people didn’t have mobile phones, let alone smartphones. Today we manufacture 1.6 billion annually. Smartphones went from devices that no one knew that they needed to something that more than half of the world owns. Robots won’t be any different.

Also, just like the iPhone, robots will improve. The average robot of 2030 will be five to ten times as productive as robots today. Look at that original iPhone from 2007. Or your first iPad. Whoops! There was no iPad 10 years ago. It arrived in 2010. How advanced will industrial robots, or Artificial Intelligence, be in a decade? Meanwhile, you and I and the rest of the human race will be pretty much the same as the 2017 model.        

Back to today. Whether work goes to China or if it stays in the US, China will “own” the world’s workforce. That’s the future guys! The world spent the 20th century worrying about Communism taking over the world. Now we can spend the 21st century worrying about Chinese robots taking over our work. Who would have thought that Communist robots would take over the world! Gee. Thanks, President Trump!

OK. It’s not really Trump’s fault. Anyone sitting in the White House has the same options. Do you promote outsourcing, prevent it or just leave the issue alone. You can create all the penalties you want, but if the benefit is greater, you’re still going to outsource. Now that a lot of the work that has already been outsourced can be performed by AI’s robots and automation, that work WILL come back from Mexico to the US. After all, the robots cost the same regardless of where we put them, and if the work stays at home, we save the cost of shipping materials around the world.

Likewise, work that was going to go offshore will be re-evaluated and stay at home. But when we build new automated factories onshore that can compete with offshoring, old and inefficient America factories are going to upgrade. Instead of being built to Mexican workers, US goods are going to be built by America robots (well, Chinese robots rented by American’s).

What does all this mean? It means that if Trump does what he says, he will cut off manufacturing work in Mexico, and keep it in the US. He may be able to do that, but the work that is kept in the US will not create a lot of new jobs, due to automation. Taking jobs out of Mexico means that fewer Mexican will be employed, and unable to buy US products. If Mexico is unhappy about the new rules we create, they could retaliate and further reduce the sales of US products in Mexico.

If anyone in Washington is listening… a lot has happened in the last 25 years. It’s possible that back then America should have negotiated a different, better deal. But today the technology of outsourcing has changed. The White House believes that Mexico can be made to negotiate a deal that would have been more beneficial to the US in 1992. Perhaps it can. But will that deal truly benefit us in 2018? Maybe not. But the facts clearly show that Washington needs a better understanding of how the relationship with Mexico works today before we try to change the last quarter century of economic history.  Don’t agree? Then comment and tell us your opinion!

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MiFID II is Here And Layoffs Are On The Way

layoffsWe’re now a full month into 2018. For a long time, we’ve been saying that MiFID is coming. Well, it’s here!. MiFID II is a huge set of regulations but the big change was supposed to be transparency in transactions. In 2017 if you bought stocks or debt in Europe, you got a single fee that bundled transactions with research and other cots. After MiFID II, all 2018 will separate transaction from everything else. That means that customers, rather than research directors, will determine the size and direction of Equity Research. How big a difference will this make?


  • Lower Research Fees: As Fund Managers receive and review fees from traders, there are going to be differences. If two traders provide the same service, but one charges more, why not just keep the lowest cost provider? Isn’t that the core takeaway from years of working with procurement?
  • Fewer traders: There is an argument for some redundancy. What if something goes wrong? You need more than just one trader. You may need two or three, or if you use ten what do you gain? Before MiFID, it really didn’t matter since bundled fees made true cost analysis difficult. Now, dealing with fewer traders could significantly cut operating costs.   
  • Kill low-value reports: In the lead up to MiFID II, everyone agreed that far more reports were written than read. The 15 biggest investment banks produce 40,000 reports a week, with less than 1% read by customers. We’ve created a multi-billion dollar research and publication industry (with tens of thousands of employees) that has no readership.
  • High-value reports: Some reports are better written and more insightful than others. Apple has is covered by 50 analysts. The top five or ten probably have more original insights than the remaining 40+ reports. Do we benefit from more than 5-10 analysts covering a stock? Yet we have so many small-cap stocks that are barely covered.
  • Spread To USA: MiFID II is specifically a European regulation. However, the US and European market are so tightly integrated that it would certainly make sense to just follow MiFID rules in Europe AND the US. If so, the combined jobs losses in research will be huge.
  • Profitability: If equity research departments are aggressive, a hundred thousand or more positions would be terminated, and software and data service licenses reduced. Billions saved here could keep the stock market’s momentum going through 2018.


  • Fewer Reports: Fewer equity reports will be written and distributed, slashing costs. Firms like \Bloomberg and Thomson/Reuters will also need to reduce staffing. At a minimum, data firms can expect urgent demands for contract renegotiation.
  • Specialization: it’s hard to guess the “voice of the customer”.  But I’d bet that customers are going to say something like, “Kill that mediocre stuff!” Big, highly paid research departments need to produce reports with insight, with info directly from the c-suite and above. Few research department can do that across a large number of stocks. But maybe someone can develop a new approach to equity sales research that surprises the market?
  • Unfamiliar Faces: 2018 will be a year of unfamiliar faces. Many sell-side analysts will disappear, but some may reappear as buy-side analysts. Researchers on both sides may swap places, swap specialties or be retrained to fill new positions… after the “voice of the customer” is heard we will know which firms, industries, and specialties are worth the cost of research. 
  • Higher Efficiency: MIFID isn’t the only big thing happening in 2018. For decades automation and Artificial Intelligence has been at the forefront of Wall Street’s evolution. Automation is taking over processing (buy, sell, compliance, billing); AI is taking over decision making (what to buy or sell, when to change strategies, building portfolios); and customers are moving towards indexed funds that don’t require traditional research.     

During the first quarter, customers will analyze their billing. By the end of the quarter, trading firms are going to tell us what they do and do not want to pay for. By the Second quarter, we can expect a wave of terminations and position changes. In the third and fourth quarters, we will find out if the cuts are just 20-30%, or if MIFID plus new technology takes away 75-90% of research and other staff.  

Will 2019 be a quiet year for Wall Street to recover, or are this year’s changes just a ramp up to even deeper transformation? If you have insight into the next set in Wall Street’s evolution… we’re all ears! Tell us what you think!

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2018 – The Year of The Male Glass Ceiling?


It’s been going on for a few months now, even a few years, maybe forever… depending on how you look at it. Women have finally had enough and are demanding basic worker rights. However, demanding rights and EFFECTIVELY getting men to pay for many years of harassment and underpay is just beginning. We are nowhere near the peak of this revolution.

Cultural change in America is often led by celebrities and the pretty people. Taylor Swift raised eyebrows when she refused to follow the script. Instead of, “Your honor… I’m sorry I’m pretty. But could you please protect me from this terrible molester?” Instead, she said, “He stayed latched onto my bare ass!” Perhaps most importantly, Taylor said, “I am not going to allow your client to make me feel like it is any way my fault because it isn’t.”   

The real story is that her being angry in court. Or that her molester felt that he could get away with putting his hand up Taylor Swift’s dress while they stood on a public stage. It’s not even that he molester sued Swift for telling his employer what happened. The real story is that the molester’s point of view accurately maps America’s beliefs about how often and how deeply sexual abuse is woven into our culture. 

We’ve heard interesting stories from Hollywood. Harvey Weinstein seems to be the source of at least one hundred molestation cases, probably more. And there seems to be a problem in Washington as well. If this was a movie, the Trailers haven’t even started. No, we’re just wandering around finding our seats, hearing an occasional cough in the distance. Everything so far, that’s just background coughs. The real story is about to play in IMAX with 3D sound. 

A new year of indignities is about to start. In high paying professions… lawyers, doctors, accountants, stock brokers, media firms, marketing, etc. … this is when bonuses are calculated, checks are handed out, and new promotions are announced. Bonuses are usually not made public, but top executives may be legally required to announce their compensation.

As the list of molesters grows and becomes ever more public, will victims and co-workers keep their silence as new Harvey Weinstein’s and Roger Ailes are put into positions of power? Will HR departments finally take actions against misbehaving executives? Is it time that the Board of Directors or major stockholders demand a code of standards to force out predators? Will executives see victims as liabilities that need to be eliminated? When it’s time to hand out raises and promotions, corporate America will either…

  • Hand out overdue promotions: Don’t expect this to happen too often as long as current managers and HR departments are in charge. If managers are able to promote without the approval of others, they will be legitimately frightened that they are providing evidence that they are fixing an obvious problem.  
  • Promote undeserving workers: The focus has been on unwanted sexual advances of managers. But what about managers that traded undeserved promotions for sex? When managers pay for sex with company resources, qualified workers are penalized. Putting unqualified workers in management positions weakens good companies. What does your HR handbook say about “pay for play”?   
  • Unfairly and illegally terminate victims and witnesses: Nothing new here. This has been corporate America’s default action. Molesters often threaten victims with termination and tarnished reputations. Hiding indiscretions and then punishing victims is the only “solution” that some managers understand. Rather than reform, expect some managers to double down on bad decisions.

How will victims and coworkers react? We can expect many more leaks about executives and their abuses. Some workplaces, such as the US government, will probably pass “protective” laws that silence whistleblowers. Like the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act. You may get an official statement that the molester is guilty,  but the minute the victim starts the process they are bound to silence. We don’t need more silence. When workers see bonuses and promotions for the year, we can expect many “revelations”.  

#MeToo and #TimesUp are spreading around the world to even the most isolated locations. Like Silicon Valley and corporate IT. You don’t think they’re isolated? Care the count the number of female executives? Even the tools created by Internet Billionaires (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) follow rules that protect people molesters and punish victims. Women are constantly shamed, trolled and generally abused by a largely male audience. 

Many of these actions may be illegal under the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which guarantees equal pay for equal work (and a fair workplace) regardless of sex, race or creed. But Congress and our court system have had little interest in seeing if it applies to how women have been treated. Now, Congress is frantically working on new legislation to address sexual abuse and pay inequality.

Will they succeed? Maybe. Will it get done in 2018? No, they won’t. But to quote Winston Churchill, “… this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Consider how much needs to be done.  In 1960, women only earned 60% of what men made. In 2016 it rose to 80%. Unless you have a highly paid job, like a stockbroker. Here, women make just 55% of what their male counterparts make.

Let’s face it, women just aren’t going close this gap as long as men keep moving the goalposts. To make serious gains, women must have the ability to change the game. What a minute… if women held more than 20% of the seats in Congress, maybe Congress would have a different agenda, with different priorities.

Why not go for it in 2018? I know, I know, you feel that you can’t take a position if you are unqualified. But GOOD NEWS! That’s no longer a barrier in Washington. No one has ever been less qualified for political office than President Trump! Yet, even when his supporters that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, they still say he’s doing a great job! It’s time to join the Trump revolution and run for office!

There are some signs of early progress. Imperative Entertainment tossed Kevin Spacey from the movie “All The Money In The World” due to his bad behavior. But ***sigh*** negative Kudo’s for not paying any of the women for reshooting scenes, yet having the money to pay at least one male actor (Mark Wahlberg) $1.5 million!

Michelle Williams, who respot the same scenes,  only received an $80 a day per diem (total of $1,000). This serves as a gentle reminder that even when Hollywood says it will do the right thing, their sense of justice is so corrupted that they cannot see how bad their daily decisions are.

As you read through this story, you might notice a pattern emerging. Men are all about personal rewards, be it money or title and most often both. When they have power, men use it for personal gain, often putting their interests ahead of their peers, employees, and stockholders. Women tend to think in terms of personal sacrifice, the success of the group, and mentoring. Not just in these few examples. Studies repeatedly show that women are better leaders, even when it measuring traditionally “male” characteristics like initiative and getting results.

Don’t agree? Fair enough. Men and women are, after all, individuals. If women dominated at work for a few centuries, they might make decisions that are just as bad as those made by men. Male culture has enforced two very corrosive policies which make the workplace unfair to all women, and most men.  

(1) Cult of the individual: Since the emergence of the modern corporation, CEO’s were paid around 10 times as much as the average worker. That is the way it was for a very long time. However, towards the end of the 20th century, CEO pay began to rise. By 1980, CEO’s were paid 27 times the average pay in their corporation. But as corporations continued to grow, executive pay outpaced corporate growth and profitability. 

Do stockholders really believe that in a company of 50,000 workers, just 1 person deserves such a large share of the profits? In the day of high sea pirates, the exact process of handling pay… excuse me Booty… was very specific. Everyone in the crew got a share, and the Captain received two shares. CEOs are now paid 300 to 400 times the average worker pay.  

Are CEO’s and other top executives really three or four hundred times as responsible for corporate performance than other workers? If that is true, when profits fall or corporations are penalized by regulators, do executives take a disproportionate share of the responsibility and the penalty? Very rarely! Pirates, on the other hand, were tried for their misdeeds and hung. Starting with the Captain.

When corporations fail and global economies fail, CEOs and other executives are rarely jailed, to say nothing of executed. When things go bad, executives usually say that they aren’t responsible for the actions of their corporations, or didn’t know what their employees were doing. Maybe, just maybe, when big corporations make big mistakes, it should be reflected in compensation. Over reward and over protection of executives created the environment where they are free to sexually prey on workers without fear of penalties.

(2) Little worker recognition: If the CEO and a few key executives are singularly responsible for the success of the firm, then it is logical that other workers must contribute very little. Ensuring that mediocre workers are well paid seems… pointless… given their limited impact on the bottom line. This is what has happened in corporate America.

According to the PEW research center, pay for the average worker stagnated in the mid-1960’s, about the time that executive pay started to accelerate. This is also when women started to move into the labor force and into professional positions. Whatever the thinking of corporate executives, their actions showed that they consistently favored their own compensation over everyone else.

Before unions were in complete decline, in bad financial years executives demanded lower pay, lower benefits, and no bonuses. For workers. Yet in the same year, executives often received full pay or even pay increases. When executives consistently get more and workers get less… less pay, few worker rights, and no protection from sexual predators in the workplace… we shouldn’t be surprised to find that executives rarely pay attention to the rights of women.

Interestingly, when executives were guilty of molesting workers, corporations wrote the checks to pay the victims. Executives have created an unfair working environment, violated worker rights, and then used he corporate balance sheet to bail out their mistakes. At FoxNews, the board of executives eventually found out that Roger Ailes alone cost them over $20 million in hush money payments.

If we looked at all of the payoffs, the unwarranted terminations, the bad promotions, and all of the other tangible costs of the abuse of women, how many billions of dollars are we all paying to keep this corrupt system going? I’m guessing that in boardrooms across America, this question is being asked. 

So, here we are. The first major worker revolt of the 21st century. Will it keep growing and become a political revolt? Will inequitable pay go away as long-delayed promotions are awarded? Will midterm elections lead to a Tsunami of female winners? How about the Oscars having just a single best “Male or Female actor” category? Change is coming… let’s see how many glass ceilings we can break in 2018!

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Why Do We Need 11 Billion People?

People 2

If we ever have a contest for the “Golden Age of Man”, my vote is for the last 200 years. Ancient Greece would probably get more votes for inventing philosophy, Democracy, dramas and comedies, and classical architecture. Which is a pretty good argument. But I have a stronger argument. We have more people! I don’t mean that people today are any better (or worse) than those from any other time. I mean that there are numerically more people today than ever before!

Greece might have great art, the Romans might have a mighty empire, but the 21st century has more living people than any other period of history. Every generation since before the pyramids has valued people as the primary source of wealth. Only people could labor! Only people performed work! True… tools, or a horse, or maybe a tractor can make a farmer more productive, but it is only the farmer that can harvest the crops.

The same is true with blacksmiths, bankers, ship makers, artists and any other human occupation. Global population has slowly risen throughout history, with occasional big drops due to plague, war or natural disaster. A growing population produces more and consumes more. Rising population has always gone hand in hand with rising wealth.  Before the year 1 A.D, global population rarely got above 250 million yet now it is 7.6 billion. And never before have we been so wealthy, with such a small percentage truly poor.  

We also live longer than ever before. Long-life may not in itself make you wealthy, but if you are wealthy a long and healthy life certainly has more value than a short one. 2000 years ago Romans lived 30 to 40 years. Today we live until we are 80 years old. Mostly because children that are born today live until they become adults. That’s something new. In other societies, few children grew to maturity. Childhood diseases and the dangers of life meant that only one child out of 5 or 6 became an adulthood.

Between the need for food and resources and high rates of childhood death, humanity was on a treadmill. We needed a lot of children and new adult workers. The population grew dramatically in the last two hundred years, but productivity grew even faster. More people produced more wealth faster than ever before.

This steady march towards higher population and greater wealth will all come to an end as we reach 11 billion in the year 2100. After that, population retreats, and billions will disappear from around the world. Never again will there be so many people on earth. But if we can keep our wealth even with fewer people, it might be a very good thing.

Technology has been an important wealth multiplier. Today’s worker is far more productive than their predecessors. Transporation is faster and cheaper.  It takes less effort to produce a given good. New farming techniques and seeds produce far more food. America’s greatest efficiency expert, Peter Drucker, said that farms and factories became 50 times more productive in the 20th century. Every human being on earth benefits from this greater productivity.

Consider how this increase in efficiency has impacted our workforce. In 1850, 70% of all American workers were farmers. Today farmers are 1-2 percent of the labor force, and these remaining farming jobs will be automated away in a few years. Next, factories became the main source of American employment, peaking in the mid-1960’s. Today, factories are a mere 8% of the workforce and falling. Robots and artificial intelligence will replace the remaining industrial jobs in 10-15 years.

Today, we have a service economy, combining low paying workers (cashiers, fast food workers, taxi drivers, warehouse workers) and highly paid knowledge workers (lawyers, stockbrokers, researchers, software developers). All of these positions have been targeted for replacement by automation, robots and artificial intelligence.

Tools and machines have always improved human productivity, but only lately have they replaced human beings directly, and in large numbers. Early farmers managed their own fields, but with a tractor, more fields could be plowed. Today’s farming equipment has created farms without farmers. Factories have introduced robots that replaced large numbers of workers, but outside of the structured environment of the factory, older robots have had limited impact.

Newer, intelligent, robots are able to able to deal with the ambiguities of the “real world”. Self-driving cars work in all weather, and traffic conditions. “Lights out” factories are able to work without human supervision. In corporations, sophisticated work functions such as performing sophisticated procedures, researching lawsuits, or selecting stocks for an investment fund have all been performed by machines with increasingly little or no human intervention.   

This breaks the labor treadmill. If machines are workers, more robot-workers can be built without growing our human population. Of course, such a major change will create major “disruptions” throughout the economy. By the second half of the 21st century, the old and new economies will clash. 

Look at China, the world’s most populated nation. China will continue to grow for just five or ten years, reaching a peak population of 1.5 billion. Then population will tumble by 500 million citizens by the end of the 21st century. Before population growth stalls, Chima will have an aggressive automation program in place. China is already the largest buyer of industrial robots but has started to buy robotics companies. By the 2020’s, they will build the majority of the world’s robots.

In order to meet their own needs, China must create the ability to produce millions of robots every year. After their own needs are met, by the mid-2020’s China will produce many times more industrial robots than the entire world produces now. Each of these millions of robots will replace 10 or more workers, driving a wave of automation across the world. Today we worry about jobs moving offshore. In the future, it won’t matter where the work is performed, if robots replace people.

Some believe that transitioning to robotic labor will take much longer, that people won’t accept such massive changes in a short period of time. But some nations have already achieved high levels of robot integration. For every 10,000 workers, China has only 75 robots; in the US that rises to 175.  But the nation with the highest robot ratio is South Korea, with 531 robots.

These ratios are not guesses at the future, rather they are milestones in industrial production. Just as farmers in all developed nations have dwindled to just 1-2 percent of the labor force, we can expect manufacturing workers around the world to achieve these ratios. And then exceed them.

For China to match South Korea’s average robot ratio, 4.5 million robots must be installed. But that’s just an average. In the automotive industry, which is more heavily automated than the average workplace, the US has  1,300 robots per 10, 000 workers. Attaining the automotive ratio in just the US and Europe will replace tens of millions of workers. While just industrial models have been discussed, the same level of automation will be achieved in banking, legal, insurance, and other “knowledge” based professions.

With robots and automation, the treadmill of ever-larger populations to achieve ever greater wealth is forever broken. We can add machines instead of adding people to mine resources, grow crops and build housing. In the past, the expansion of human population has forced humanity to transform the earth. When our population was in the low billions we began to run out of food. So we found out which seeds grew best on what land. Then we invented artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Now we are altering the genes of plants and animals to increase productivity. Without this boost from science, the world would have starved to death years ago.

Not enough food, fighting over water, worn out farmland, air and water pollution, whole species fished out of existence, all the result of population pressures.  Yet by the end of the 21st century, we will reach peak global population at 11 billion. We will no longer need to grow. In about 25 nations we already see a stable or falling population.

If it wasn’t for immigration, population growth in the US would have stalled. Our fertility rate, the number of children women give birth to, is 2.0. That’s our replacement rate.  But Russia is just 1.75,  Germany 1.5, and Spain just 1.2. Take Bangladesh. In 1982 their fertility rate was 6.1, but in 2015 it was just 2.1… and falling. All of these numbers are just milestones along the normal curve for developed nations.

The United Nations projects that by 2200 the world’s population will be between 2 and 5 billion. And population will continue to shrink. That gives fish room to repopulate the ocean, exhausted farmland has time to regenerate, and for the carbon in the can be absorbed by trees and plants.

In the 23rd century, human population may continue to drop. But along the way, we will hopefully have found a source of free power to join with unlimited labor. Whether that power is renewable, nuclear, fission, or something else… joining free power with robotics will create goods that are so cheap that they are essentially free. The rich may be even richer than today, even the poorest of people will be able to have more than enough to meet their needs. So, here’s to the 23rd century, to sub-1 billion and to the next Golden Age of Man!

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Intelligent Automation Inspires New Plans For Onshoring


Flying car

Photo… All rights, Newsweek


(Previously published in Outsourcing Magazine, 11/4/2017)

Offshoring and outsourcing don’t exist in a vacuum. These are processes that take advantage of and are influenced by technology, politics and the larger economy. Look at the last big round of offshoring at the start of the century. It didn’t just “happen”, without any reason. Very specific changes that facilitated this age of outsourcing.

The three biggest changes… globalization, ubiquitous computers, and cheap telecommunications… created an environment that uncoupled work from work management. Managers could stay in their traditional locations (onshore factories, corporate headquarters) while the work was moved around the world. Initially, work was outsourced to nearby cities, then to other states. Eventually, it went offshore, spreading to nations around the world. This process of “uncoupling”, over greater and greater distances, allowed work to keep moving, in search of still lower wage locations.

Another wave of change is now approaching! Intelligent automation and artificial intelligence. Call it, “The Robot Revolution.” Now, human labor, in both manufacturing and knowledge work (accounting, law, software programming, financial analysis, etc.), is being uncoupled from the local labor market. As machines replace people, the cost of labor is essentially the same everywhere. The same robots, with the same cost of operation, can be installed anywhere.

There will be a few instances where the cost of electricity is a deciding factor. But it will be the cost (and time) of transportation that is the deciding factor. Today’s outsourcing, at least of physical products, requires shipping materials and finished products around the world. Avoiding any part of shipping reduces costs and brings products to market more rapidly.

When shipping matters, the best place to manufacture is in the home market, where the products are sold. Outsourcing moved work to China and India years ago. Since then, both complex electronics and simple textile manufacturing have been moved even further, to the lowest cost locations on earth… Cambodia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. The next round of outsourcing must come from efficiency, not wage arbitrage. That’s why robots and artificial intelligence will drive the next relocation. However, it is not just the lower cost of machines vs. human labor that is driving work back home.  

Political Risk Is Back – In the early days of 21st-century offshoring, moving work to India or China was still a radical idea. Corporations wanted to quantify the level and cost of risk, but there were no clearly established risk metrics. Still, there were discussions about the range of Pakistani nuclear weapons, if you wanted to outsource to India. The C-Suite wanted to know if China’s communist government would be overthrown. Or if both countries would reverse their recent movement towards globalization and one day nationalize western factories. 

The outsourcing industry has continued to be deeply interested in risks such as rising wages and international currency exchanges, but after 5 or 10 years of successful operations, meta-issues like global stability tend to be forgotten, or at least discounted. Now, political risk is back.

China, as we all know, has become far more expensive in a very short time. A contract with China could lead to sub-contracting to Vietnam or Cambodia. Or you may be tempted to move to the Philippines when your contract renews. Now that parts of China, India, and Russia, and all of Japan, and Taiwan… fall (or will soon fall) within the range of missiles from North Korea, will this affect your outsourcing choices? On October  30th of 2017, we found out that 200 North Koreans were killed in an accident near a nuclear test site. It was probably a tunnel collapse, but it may have released radiation. We’ll see.

The general instability has Japan seriously considering rearmament, possibly building nuclear weapons. In recent years the China Sea has been the site of regular military conflicts between China and just about all other local nations, plus the United States.  Ongoing conflict is degrading the value of these locations.

Cyber Security – One of those “early days of outsourcing discussions” was, “What if your outsourcer steals your information?” Sometimes it took the form of, “What if your outsourcer has bad data security and they let in hackers who can steal your data?”  

American and European corporations have been repeatedly hacked, often by China or independent hackers in Eastern Europe. European hackers usually wanted money.  China wanted technology and the ability to silence anyone interfering with “internal Chinese” issues. When the New York Times wrote about Chinese government corruption, they became targeted by the cyber warfare division of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. 

One very clear message from repeated attacks from China was this… even if you are a big, internationally known corporation, your cyber defenses will not stand up to an attack from foreign military hackers. Yet, Richard A. Clarke, one of America’s best-known authors of cybercrime books, said that China wasn’t the threat that we should keep our eyes on. Instead, we should watch Russia, the only other nation in the world that could match the US in cyber spying. Just a few years ago when he said this, everyone thought, “How can that be? we’re constantly hearing about Chinese spying, but we never hear about Russia?”

Clarke’s answer was… That’s because only America and Russia are good enough at this to steal data without leaving a trace.” And then we had the 2016 Presidential elections. We’re still trying to sort that one out. There was direct hacking by the Russians, but also the “not-yet-illegal” use of social media to spread fake news.

The newest news from Russia comes via Israel. It seems that Israeli spies, who were possibly spying on US computers, noticed that these computers were sending data to Russia.  The computers had Kaspersky’s Anti-Virus installed, which was made in Russia. Kaspersky denied infecting the machines. That leaves Russia. Did they have spies in the factory or did they add hacking tools somewhere in transit? To add insult to injury, the Israelis said that the hacking tool that Russia used was stolen from the NSA (National Security Agency), American’s top spy group. So now it’s spies, spying on spies, who get caught by other spies. Great.

Did you know that most popular anti-virus tools come from Eastern Europe or Russia? Other communication and server maintenance tools were written all over the world. Big corporations have tools from global banks and organizations. Apparently, we really don’t know what is on our networks, especially if our data is “in the clouds”. Add to that whatever we will learn about how Russia was involved in the 2016 US Presidential Elections, and we all want to lock away our data in a lead-safe at the bottom of the ocean.

Like it or not, firms will outsource massive amounts of data to cloud services to stay competitive. But, given the rising number of government based cyber hacks, a growing number of customers may want “onshore only” storage. There are enough onshore risks. Plenty of hackers in your own backyard that you need to worry about. The best hackers are the biggest threat, and these hackers appear to be government sponsored. The best protection against having a foreign government placing spyware in your data is to not send your data offshore. Banks, media, utilities, hospitals and other prime targets in a politically motivated cyber attack will increasingly look for cloud services that offer an option for “home shore only” data centers.    

Logistics – We’ve already discussed the cost of shipping goods around the world. When goods are manufactured where they are used, there are big savings in transportation. However, goods may still need to be shipped between offshore sites for final completion. The US and Europe are about to have a huge drop in internal shipping costs.

Before the turn of the last century, the US Post Office partnered with Rail Road companies to provide low-cost shipping of mail-order catalogs. Nearly a century before Amazon, Sears, Roebuck and, Co. created America’s first virtual marketplace. Sears grew into one of the world’s largest firms, even though they would not open a physical department store for another 30 years. Everything had to be shipped to customers, from pocket watches to full-size prebuilt homes.

FedEx and other “overnight” carriers launched a new age of logistics. When the speed of business picked up in the 1980’s and 1990’s, customers couldn’t wait for slow rail deliveries. They wanted overnight delivery. FedEx, DHL, and others firms gave customers what they wanted.

Then, email drained revenue as many of their most profitable corporate customers. Instant mail was better than overnight mail. Luckily, online shoppers picked up the slack. Internet purchases could be made anywhere in the world, but you needed your purchases to be delivered to your hometown. Now we’ve come full circle, and we’re back to the days of the Sears’ virtual store.

Now, a new age of driverless vehicles is dawning. Drones, self-driving cars, electric planes, and other vehicles will be both more energy efficient and (without the cost of a driver) far less expensive to operate. This will not only reduce the time and cost of any local transportation, it will also make logistics one of the top outsourcing industries for the next decade.     



Logistics looks at the efficiency of “total” transportation systems… cars, planes, trains, ships, etc. 

The market is looking for a combination of UBER and Amazon. UBERzon? It would take over advertising, marketing fulfillment, and delivery. Amazon already performs these functions and is looking to add drones for delivery. UBER wants to take over ALL vehicles in the US, replacing individuals and corporations as the owners of vehicles and vehicle fleets. UBER has piloted services where a single vehicle is both a taxi and a UPS delivery truck… with a personal messenger service rolled in. UBERzon would need to eventually compete with (or buy out) FedEx and DHL, for national and international air cargo deliveries.


Offshoring Goes Both Ways: A lot has changed in how we outsource. Offshoring used to be defined as moving work from the West to lower cost geographies, especially China, India and nearby countries. However, when modern offshoring took hold a couple of decades ago, “offshore” countries had no brand name recognition in the west. Now offshore brands, especially Chinese brands, have strong name recognition in the West.  

Lenovo (formerly IBM laptops) is a top-selling Chinese computer brand. At about the time that Microsoft and Apple abandon China and build the products back in their home markets, we can also expect Lenovo to do their equipment assembly in the US and Europe. Huawei, China’s leading hi-tech phone manufacturer, is expected to win a big slice of the Android market with their flagship Mate 10 Pro. By the time the Mate 12 is released in a few years, expect Huawei to assemble phones in the US.

China is already heavily investing in the US and Europe. Hotel chains (Hilton), media firms (Dreamworks, Legendary, and Lionsgate), General Electric’s consumer goods and just about everything else. In the UK, over 280 firms have been bought out by the Chinese.

In the last round of outsourcing, these relationships existed. Relationships were awkward and there was little certainty.  Now that both sides have a deeper understanding of each other,  many more deals in many different forms are possible. While no one knows exactly what form new alliances and contracts will take, it is almost certain that they will be much more complex and multi-layered.

China VS. India: China and India both became offshoring powerhouses, with China dominating in manufacturing and India in knowledge work (especially IT services). China went on to aggressively invest in the west. India, however, has made few visible investments and does not seem to be actively pursuing the next wave in offshoring. 

China has done more than merely invest in western corporations. They prepared for the next wave by building out its expertise in robotics. Today, China buys more robots than any nation on earth. Soon China will manufacture most of the world’s industrial robots.

Today, China is the premier global manufacturer, giving them significant control over the global manufacturing workforce that builds the goods the world buys. As offshore manufacturing fades, China will switch from providing workers to providing robots. Soon, robots will build the goods the world buys. Then,  regardless of where work is performed, China will have even greater control over manufacturing across the entire globe.

India, on the other hand, has not invested in the west or created partnerships in the US and Europe at anywhere near the same rate as China. Instead, India is “all in” on traditional outsourcing. Accenture, TCS, and Wipro have become recognized brands among the Fortune and FTSE 500. Regulations make it difficult to take money out of the Indian economy to invest abroad. Still, if India does not invest in other areas, it may be shut out of big outsourcing deals by China.

Ironically, much of the talent that is creating new AI software comes from India. Work outsourced to India is building many of the most advanced AI and machine learning systems. In raw numbers, the 43,000 patents India creates annually are a great improvement over the past. However, it pales before the 578,000 from the US or the 928,000 from China. Furthermore, according to the Times of India, 80% of the patents that India has secured are for foreign corporations doing work in India. Indians have been pivotal to the development of the AIs that will rule the world, but unlike China, India may not directly benefit from this achievement.

Brave New World: Twenty years ago, modern offshoring caught fire and became a massive, global business. There were earlier waves of offshoring, but each new wave becomes bigger than the last. In the coming wave, offshoring from the west will recede, as a wave of offshoring approaches from China, South Korea, Japan and the rest of Asia. 

We don’t know how this new outsourcing will express itself, but the earliest forms we will see in the next year will be more sophisticated than the most complex contracts we saw this year. Especially if onshoring is super-charged by tariffs against offshoring in 2018.

Foxconn, the largest employer in the world, is finalizing a $3 billion incentive deal for a mega-factory in Wisconsin. Will Foxconn completely manage the construction and operation of this factory complex? More likely, the government of Wisconsin will negotiate co-management to stimulate local businesses and employment. This is just the start of the new onshore mega-deals. If you’re ready to step up to a new level of outsourcing, a whole new world of opportunity is about to come knocking on your door!

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High Tech Cars Fascinate Buyers and Save the World


Photo, all rights, TechCrunch

Photo, all rights, TechCrunch

You’ve heard that robots are taking over? It’s true! A lot of people are frightened about a “workless” future, but parts of the Robot Revolution will be useful. Like cars that can drive themselves. Just a couple of years ago, car experts said that they wouldn’t heavily impact the market until 2050. It made sense. Car companies take decades to introduce new features. Yet, just last year, A.I. experts said that 2030 would be the key transition year. Now, Unicorn firms plan to have production vehicles on the road by 2020. It looks like self-driving cars will hit the road, at least in several major cities, by 2018. 

In past articles, we’ve discussed how cars that can drive themselves will impact employment. Vehicles with paid drivers will go autonomous far more quickly than consumer cars. The financial incentives are huge for taxis, trucks, the UPS and FedEx. And government vehicles! Critical public and government organizations want to go autonomous, but they have special constraints that make their implementation date a toss up.

The United States Post Office (USPS) has been looking for autonomous vehicles for years. They NEED autonomous vehicles to stem their financial bleeding. They haven’t had a break-even year in the last two decades. Since 2001 they have lost over $50 billion, $6 billion just last year. Half of all post offices will close. Perhaps very soon.

The USPS needs a game changer, and autonomous vehicles may be their only hope. Small towns have a similar problem. The ups and downs of the economy have left many with big financial problems. Towns operate a lot of vehicles… school buses, garbage trucks, repair vehicles. They can barely afford to operate this fleet.

These days town vehicles are usually operated by union drivers or managed by 3rd parties under inflexible contracts. It can take years, even decades, to work out new agreements. The US military purchases a huge number of vehicles and has begun asking suppliers about electric and autonomous vehicles. Robot war machines? Seems a bit too sci-fi? Really? Remember, not too long ago, when you first heard about military drones?

When will consumers buy cars that drive themselves? Not in 2018, but not too far in the future either. Right now quite a few models can drive themselves… in some places, at least some of the time. Cars that park themselves or that can apply the brakes in an emergency have been around for years. Your next car will probably be able to drive under “safe” conditions… slow driving stuck in a traffic jam, certain roads with little traffic. 

VW BuzzBy 2022 we can expect to see fully autonomous vehicles from the big manufacturers, starting with Volkswagen. Remember the “Hippy Bus” from the 1960’s? VW has committed to delivering a slick looking, all-electric, self-driving version by 2022. Of course, the production vehicles can look very different from the concept vehicle, but it it is a VERY good looking concept vehicle. It can be a 6 seater van, a camper, or even an “office on wheels”. It has the potential of being a huge success.

Which brings us to an amazing detail that few experts have mentioned. The autonomous car revolution IS the electric car revolution. A gas-powered car can be self-driving, but it is much more efficient to make it an electric vehicle. Here’s why…

  1. Simplicity: In order to turn the steering wheel or press the brake pedal, you need actuators or electric motors, plus circuitry for the computer that runs the car’s Artificial Intelligence. If the car is all electric, you can skip a variety of mechanical “in-between” parts. That lowers the cost of manufacturing.
  2. Weight: Fewer parts means lower weight and higher reliability. The engine is removed from under the hood and replaced by 4 smaller electric motors inside of the wheel hubs. This eliminates most of the gear system and the entire powertrain (heavy parts that distribute power to the wheels). Electric motors also provide braking power, eliminating today’s separate braking system. Finally, the 12-volt electrical system is replaced with more lightweight cables. All told, nearly 1,000 lbs can be cut from the car’s weight.   
  3. Reliability: Internal combustion engines (ICE) have a few hundred to a few thousand moving parts. Electrics have just a handful of moving parts. That means less effort to design and build electric vehicles and lower maintenance costs. Imagine… no more oil changes!
  4. Efficiency: A lot of power in an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) is turned into waste heat. Gas powered cars waste 75% to 85% of the energy from their fuel. Electric vehicles waste a more moderate 40% of their power. There’s still a tweak or two for the ICE, but after a century of evolution, it’s just about as efficient as it can get. Alternatively, electric motors have more room for improvement.

The same experts that missed the autonomous/electric connection have missed an even bigger point. They usually tell us that if America moves from petroleum to electricity, it could spell the end of the oil industry. That could be good. That could be bad. It depends on what you think about the oil industry. And if you own any oil funds. But what about electricity? When we plug in our cars, what happens? Won’t we need more power plants? What kind of power plants will we build?

Plug And Pray?: First, we have the simple matter of recharging our vehicles. Our 263 million vehicles! America’s 150,000 gas stations can easily add recharge stations as we transition from petroleum to electric. In fact, they need the business. In the 1990’s America had 200,000 gas stations. Consolidation in the oil industry eliminated 25% of all gas stations. The higher efficiency of electric vehicles will probably mean that a recharge will be less profitable than a fill-up. 

As our vehicles transition between power sources, gas stations will have competition. The perfect time for a recharge is when you park. Parking lots and municipal parking meters could easily add rechargers, providing a big boost to municipal revenues and private parking lot profits. Consider the sales of air filters, spark plugs, fan belts and oil changes. Electric cars don’t use these products.

But the big, BIG, change is that you can recharge your car at home. Plug it into the wall and recharge your car overnight. That could be 50% or more of all car recharges. Put all of this together and in 20 years when almost all American cars are electric, there may be as few as 50,000 traditional gas stations.

Astronomical Numbers!: Problem one solved. In fact, more than solved! Replacing petroleum-based vehicles with non-polluting electric cars will take a huge bite out of global warming! Think about it, millions of carbon spewing vehicles retired and replaced by zero pollution cars. Finally, freedom from foreign oil! Well, freedom in around 20 years.

The average new car is sold after 6 years. It then passes down through other hands for another 10 or more years. But 20 years, just about every car is ready to be scrapped. Most cars will be self-driving and electric. Isn’t it great that we can have a win/win with no environmental cost whatsoever? Yep. No cost! None!

Uhhh. Unless. Hmmm. If every gas-powered vehicle in America, all 263 million, become electric… won’t we need to produce more power than we do today? On a typical hot summer day when air conditions are cranked all the way up, cities across America have blackouts, which means that more power is used than is available. If millions of electric vehicles plug in somewhere to recharge, we’re going to need more power. Or we’re going to have blackouts all year round.

Miami trafficHow much power will we need? Every year America consumes 170 billion gallons of petroleum (gasoline and diesel). If we convert this into electricity, we get 5.4 million Gigawatt hours (GWh). To meet this demand, we would need to more than DOUBLE the That’s more than all of the electricity… that’s coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, natural gas, geothermal, wind, solar, everything!… consumed by Americans every year!   

Luckily, we won’t need to add quite that many new electric power plants. We already know that electric vehicles are more efficient than petroleum vehicles. At least twice as efficient. Also, our power grid still has some excess capacity. Not on those hot summer days, but just about every night, especially very late at night. Just when we will program our cars to recharge themselves. So, lets cut our needs in half again. Now, we need just 1.3 million GWh. Spread that over the next 20 years, we only need to build 67,000 GWh of new power every year.  That’s still a lot, but it is far less astronomical than the total power gap.

Power Is  A Breeze: Of course, this leads to another question, “What type of power plants will we build?” Let’s start with wind turbines. Wind turbines are rapidly evolving. Every year they are bigger and more efficient. New turbines are averaging 2-3 MegaWatts (1/1000 of a gigawatt). The largest wind turbine (so far) can generate 7 MWh and is a massive 650 feet tall. For now, let’s stick to more modest models. Something in the 2.5 MWh range, and just 300 to 400 feet tall. How many will we need?

The first rule of power generation is, “No power system produces at full capacity all year round.” Even a nuclear power plant needs downtime for maintenance. And then there are low demand times when the plant runs at less than 100% capacity. Since the wind isn’t always blowing and some days are cloudy, wind, tide, and solar power generation all have low utilization.  

Wind TurbineRule number two, “Location, location, location!” Some locations are windier (or sunnier) than others. The same turbine in two different locations will generate different amounts of power. Wind and solar are more land intensive than nuclear or petroleum based power. Identical wind turbines, in different locations, could have dramatically different costs per MWh.  For example, if the turbine is placed on the coast, just offshore where the wind blows continuously, utilization is high and the land may be given to you by the government. Onshore, most locations will have a much higher cost.

Most turbines are likely to average 30% utilization. That means that America needs 1.8 million wind turbines to power our 263 million cars, or 90,000 installed every year (1,900 every week) for 20 years. That would create quite a very large wind power industry. But, it wouldn’t work quite this way. 

That’s our next rule, “Costs are rarely linear.” The first new turbine we added would be in a great spot, where the wind blows often, the land is cheap and we’re near the users (farther away and you lose too much in transmission). The next turbine will be put in a slightly less ideal location. You go from great to good, to barely break-even locations. After 100,000 turbines… maybe 200,000 possibly 500,000… either the wind isn’t reliable or the land costs too much, or something else is wrong. Wind and solar power can be a big part of the solution, but other power sources will also be needed.

Carbon Is Back: Other options? Hydro-electric is out. Rather than building new dams, dams are being torn down across America because of environmental concerns. There’s always nuclear, but its reputation is so far from spotless that it’s a non-starter. Which is a pity. That bad image comes from reactors built to 1950s design specifications. The latest designs, using Thorium instead of Uranium or Plutonium, are simpler, cheaper and far more reliable. Still, it takes such a long time to approve and build a reactor, even without public opposition, that if we planned a new reactor today the first watt of nuclear power won’t appear until well after our 20-year time frame. Let’s move on.

So. Ahhh. Ahem. Coal.  A third of our electricity comes from coal. Even if we don’t build a single new coal-fired power plant, we are likely to ramp up the utilization of existing coal plants, especially overnight. We could also close the oldest and dirtiest coal power plants and replace them with newer, cleaner facilities. However, the newer the plant, the more it will be automated. Which is another rule… Newer = Cleaner = Less jobs. Clean coal is technically possible, it’s just not likely to be economically feasible. Of all of the forms of energy we can expand, coal offers the fewest jobs.

Nonetheless, ever since the 2016 Elections, Washington has talked about putting coal miners back to work. But more coal, clean or dirty, isn’t going to create a lot of new jobs. The problem isn’t the power plant, it’s the mine itself. Political ads show coal country miners from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee taking crowded elevators deep underground into claustrophobic tunnels. That’s an accurate picture of the coal industry… a century ago. But not today.   

Today, two-thirds of America’s coal comes from open pit mines and draglines. It works like this. Find a mountain with a seam of coal running under it. Now, carefully lift the top off of the mountain and gently put it down in the valley. Sorry… got that wrong. I meant to say, use tons of high explosives and turn the mountain into gravel.

Now put a gigantic crane, weighing as much as 1,000 school buses, on the highest spot overlooking the coal seam. This crane is the dragline. It throws out a massive bucket that is dragged across the floor of the mine, scooping up hundreds of tons of rock and coal. The largest dragline ever built is operated by a crew of five.  That’s why the Department of Labor lists a mere 3,150 jobs in “Excavating,  Loading Machine, and Dragline Operators”.  From cramped mines filled with miners to one machine digging up more coal with a crew of 5, it seems obvious that the next step is fewer, if any, workers. 


Big Muskie Bucket

Dragline bucket

Likewise, the giant trucks and other vehicles to move coal from the mine to the nearest train are the heavy duty trucks we’ve already said will be the first vehicles to be converted to self-driving. If we use more coal to meet the demand for electricity, it will unquestionably accelerate automation throughout the coal industry.

Natural Gas?: Of all the petroleum products we can use, natural gas seems to be the best option. It’s abundant, inexpensive, and the cleanest petroleum fuel. For all of these reasons, it has been natural gas… more than pollution regulations… that killed coal.  

Then, fracking came along. Well, that’s not quite true. Fracking…  using hot pressurized water to crush shale deposits deep in the earth… was invented in the 1950’s. This process produces oil and natural gas. Fracking picked up speed when horizontal drilling was developed, allowing the profitable extraction of small pockets of petroleum.

However, the new technology made so much new drilling possible that new problems were created. Oil spills. Petroleum showing up in drinking water. Even earthquakes! We’re not talking about a tiny but statistical number of quakes. Ohio used to have 2 quakes a year. Now it is well over 1,000 every year, with each quake under an active fracking site.

Clearly, fracking has been misused. And environmentalists can point to some pretty bizarre side effects, like drinking water that catches fire. Or pipelines that are being forced onto Native American tribal lands, completely ignoring tribal rights. The 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in US shale deposits could recharge our cars for the next 300 years. If we were just a bit more selective in where we drill, we could greatly reduce these effects. Or we could ignore fracking and just use non-fracked natural gas, which is enough to keep things running for the next 50-100 years.   

Getting There:  There are tremendous benefits to self-driving cars. It seems inevitable that all developed nations will quickly adopt vehicles that are intelligent enough navigate our streets and highways. However, the transition to intelligent vehicles entails another transition, from petroleum to electricity.  THAT transition requires a massive expansion of our national power grid… the biggest expansion ever!

Most of the power grid is nearly a century old. It’s not just the powerplants, it’s the distribution infrastructure. Cables that carry current from the power plant to our homes and offices are still made of copper. Using copper cables means that we lose between 8% and 15% of all the power we generate in the transmission and distribution process. Newer alloys and even some early superconductors can reduce power losses, saving billions of dollars every year.

And then… Change is on the way! Self-driving electric cars are all but inevitable. But the changes that these cars will bring are based on decisions we have as yet to make. We can build new industries, change how we work, and perhaps… just perhaps… save our environment.

But before we reap all these benefits, we have to make those decisions. How will we grow our power grid? Should we utilize the unused capacity of our coal power plants or should we focus on building a next-generation power plant that we can roll out in force? Should we even consider what happens after our 20-year timetable? We will have consumed much of our remaining global petroleum reserves. Is it time to start talking about fusion power? What do you think? Comment and share your opinions!

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