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Mike Redwood questions whether the rise of automation has had a positive effect on productivity in the tannery.
There is no doubt that mechanisation and automation have greatly transformed the leather industry. From one end of the tannery to the other, remarkable ideas from machinery companies have improved quality and consistency as well as removing tedious labour-intensive tasks. Many use digital tools but often it has only been in the clever application of clever designs.
In the office, computerisation began with accounts functions and updating the mechanical typewriter. This was followed by production and project management tools and shared suites such as the pioneering Lotus Notes. Now, digital devices for a multitude of uses are spread into every crevice of business and personal life.
In many ways, that is the point. The original step-by-step approach made things simpler but it took President Clinton to explain that the improvements were apparently so good that the standard productivity calculations could not measure them.
While it is quite clear that IT tools collect huge amounts of data at a very low cost, it is less obvious that everything collected is fully understood and sensibly used. In the leather industry, we are currently paying a very heavy price for errors in this regard.
Calculations on diets, livestock agriculture and the best materials to use have all been the subject to what we now see as an exceedingly poor use of data. While it is generous to say that the errors have been caused by a lack of knowledge or skill, there is no doubt that many very well-intentioned people have been misled into a belief that meat is unhealthy, livestock farming is a bad thing and leather is worse to use than synthetic alternates.
Have we made similar mistakes in tanneries?
Do we correctly assess different raw material origins and cost selective grades or decide sensibly on the handling of rejects? We know that these are all difficult to manage successfully but are we applying the tools to them with adequate forethought and skill?
The development of what is now called enterprise software became well known for the staggering multiples beyond budget in time and cost needed to get them introduced. Linking systems and databases together is complicated work as successive governments will agree after a series of costly failed IT projects.
In the final stage of my own career, I did some part-time university teaching. At the start, staff were fully supported by what would now be quaintly termed as administrative staff, who handled all matters around timetables, examinations, travel and expenses so that staff could focus on teaching and research. But, once digital tools were introduced, staff had to do it all themselves. This was time-consuming and frustrating work. Was it really wise to make highly qualified staff spend hours struggling alone with these tasks that the administrator could quickly sort out? I gave it up.
There is an overlap with the leather industry, which is a mix of the scientific and the aesthetic. The skill is to ensure that value is being added appropriately with the human doing the tasks which cannot, or perhaps more importantly, should not be done by any form of artificial intelligence if product integrity is to be retained.
Mostly the leather industry has been good in this area, but care is needed. In sectors where corrected or heavily pigmented leathers are produced, it is easy to slide into producing commodity products where margins are squeezed and consumers find it hard to differentiate it from plastic, or even where for the simplicity of production top quality hides have a beautiful grain replaced by a thick finish. And such leathers often do not last as long as they should.
Although much discussed, staff spending too much time on social media is not the problem with computers and devices, unless it is causing anxiety or depression for which there seems to be quite a lot of evidence. But not giving enough thought to what they should be doing within the business and where computerisation truly provides benefit is what truly matters, as well as giving tanners the time and space to make the best leather in the world.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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