Sunday, March 20, 2011

Some Follow-Up

Caption: Ask Google for a picture of a Toyota assembly line that doesn't have a burdensome copyright, and this is the best it can do. I like it, though.

Image credit: dentarg/Flickr

A couple of follow-ups from thoughts expressed earlier in the week...

First, on the subject of what disasters mean, this Bloomberg article provides another example, thanks to the problems that Japanese manufacturers Sony and Toyota are having with production thanks to the quakes:
Sony and Toyota’s efforts to resume production are complicated by the need for hundreds of different components to build TVs and cars from a variety of different suppliers that may have suffered plant damage in the earthquake and tsunami. Japan is also facing electricity shortages because a nuclear- power plant was crippled by the temblor.

“This will be played out not in days, but in weeks,” said John Hoffecker, head of the automotive practice at consulting firm AlixPartners LLP in Detroit. “Nothing on this scale has really occurred before.”

Toyota, Sony Disruptions May Last Weeks After Japan Earthquake
To understand what all this means, it's probably best to think of large manufacturers of the magnitude of Sony and Toyota as being like very large networks of manufacturers. Any one of them failing to deliver can make it all but impossible to produce a product, at least in the short term. The problem is, keeping with our illustration theme, when this happens to the electrical plant that powers your capacitor factory:

Caption: According to this live blog of the Fukishima reactor shutdowns and related issues, this is a model of one of the plants that were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami that was used by the NHK television network to illustrate the problems.

Image credit:

Then the BFCs don't get to your power supply factory.

Caption: A 2000 uF, 200V electrolytic capacitor. Four inches (10 cm) tall and almost two inches (5 cm) in diameter, these are sometimes referred to as a "can" or a "BFC" (the 'B' is for "big"). This sort of capacitor might have been used in large DC power supplies a few years ago. (In the age of universal power supplies, the voltage rating would have to be higher.) This particular example is clearly old. You know that because it was manufactured in the U.S.A.

Image credit: Cujo359

If the power supplies, in turn, don't get to your television factory, you can't make TVs. As someone they interviewed for that article said, televisions and cars each have thousands of parts in them, and you need all those parts, or you can't make them. That's a problem that we can see in any number of processes and systems in a complicated society like ours. Lose the ability to communicate, to make something, or send things back and forth to where they're needed, and lots of other things don't work as well as they used to, and often they don't work at all.

The other follow-up was inspired by my purchase of this item today:

Image credit: Photo by Cujo359 (see standard disclaimer)

Normally, these things are something like $3.00 each. It contains what I often eat when I make my own breakfast - eggs, potatoes, cheese, and vegetables in sufficient quantities to be decorative. I say "something like $3.00", because I refuse to buy something I can make for a buck or two in materials for that kind of money. At least, I don't buy it very often. But, when the local stores drop the price below two dollars, I tend to buy them.

Which goes to show that occasionally we ordinary consumers actually do consider a form of maximum utility, which I'd argued Friday that we didn't. The truth is really more complicated - we buy different things for different reasons, using different methods. I buy cars differently than I do frozen breakfasts. The point remains, though, that you can't model consumer behavior based on this one idea of how we buy things. We don't usually buy a great many things that way, and if you assume otherwise you'll be wrong more often than not.

Standard disclaimer: Weight Watchers is a trademark of, umm, let me look at the box ... WW Foods LLC. The use of the picture here is not intended to be an endorsement of this product over competing brands, nor does it represent any sort of collaboration on or endorsement of this article by (you can sing along to this now, right?) WW Foods, LLC, or anyone else who isn't me. It is used strictly for illustration of the ideas expressed in this article by (I repeat) me.

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