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Stretching the Truth

By Lloyd Graff.

The American Girl Doll, Ivy, that Lloyd’s granddaughter Eliana received for her birthday (left)

My oldest granddaughter Eliana celebrated her 9th birthday Monday, and her grandmothers splurged on an American Girl doll for her present. She and her sisters love these dolls and they have a small family of them accumulated from several birthdays.

I am fascinated by the success of the doll company, started by Pleasant Rowland in 1986 on a shoestring, an idea and a bit of a lie. She sold her company, called Pleasant Company, to Mattel (owner of Barbie™) in 1998 for $700 million cash.

I have enormous respect for Rowland as a marketer. She built a brand based on history, wholesomeness, and quality that has endured and grown hugely under Mattel’s management. But she fudged the story about the genesis of the doll in her early catalogues. In Rowland’s story of the American Girl Doll, she writes that “deep in the basement of a small museum lies a tattered, water-stained doll trunk. Open the dusty lid and the long-ago childhood of some lucky girl comes instantly to life. Tucked gently inside a beautiful porcelain doll – dearly loved and much played with. I discovered this trunk by chance more than a year after I had begun working on the American Girl Collection. It served as a powerful reminder of why I had begun the collection, and what I hoped it would accomplish.”

However, the story written around this doll and its image is false. The doll was purchased for Sybil Hanks (born 1908) by her parents and named Nancy Hanks. She was kept in pristine condition and never played with before being donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1966 along with Hanks’ entire collection. When Rowland put the doll in the catalogue, it was placed by a water stained trunk to convey a “well-played with” image.

Rowland’s story stretched the truth a little, but don’t we all in business and in life? Haven’t we all said “you look mahvelous!” to a friend who needed a boost, even if they looked pallid and frazzled.

When is stretching the truth a “lie” and when is it just smart marketing or saying the right thing at that moment?

I listened to a fascinating TED talk recently on this subject by Dan Ariely, the brilliant social scientist and commentator. His topic was ‘“cheating” and “stealing” not just lying.’ His point is that we tolerate and even accept a lie if it is perceived not to hurt other people and is believed to be a “small one.” Telling a friend that they “look mahvelous” is probably not going to offend anybody but the most sensitive sourpuss.

But how about Patience Rowland’s little lie to the parents of 8-year-old girls? Did she violate the sense of honesty and purity she meant to convey in her doll creations by dramatizing a fiction to the parents and grandparents who were shelling out a paycheck for dolls and doll clothes dedicated to a purified image of wholesomeness?

I am in the “who cares?” category. We love our stories and myths. They bring meaning and depth to our humdrum lives. My beloved granddaughter Eliana cherishes her dolls and their families. She gobbles up the books about the imagined stories of her doll figures and embellishes her dolls with her own version of their biographies.

The purists who begrudge Patience Rowland her fortune because she saw gold in a romanticized doll story and executed her vision to perfection miss the point. Myths, even made of little lies, are the stuff of life. My Dad and I used to joke around that all our dirty oily screw machines were used by “a little old lady on Sunday.” If we ever found a pristine National Acme that had been sitting in government storage for 25 years, we would call it a “little old lady machine” and laugh.

Stretching the truth. Indulging a little lie. It’s business.

And “you look mahvelous” too!

Question: Is lying a sin?

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A 3-D Printing Startup’s Plan to Bring Manufacturing Back to Cities

Courtesy of Wired. BY ISSIE LAPOWSKY.

Today, Shapeways may be nothing more than a company that uses 3-D printers to help designers create quirky figurines and modernist jewelry. But according to founder and CEO Peter Weijmarshausen, the longterm goal for the New York City-based outfit is to bring manufacturing back to America’s cities.

“We believe manufacturing should be local,” Weijmarshausen said on stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York on Wednesday. “Our view is, over time, more and more Shapeway factories will appear in places all over the world, and in those places, not only will we get products to you faster and at a lower cost, but we’ll have lower impact on the environment for transportation.”

SHAPEWAYS FACTORIES NOW PRINT ABOUT 1,500 PRODUCTS A DAY, OR ONE PRODUCT EVERY MINUTE.

Shapeways, which launched in 2007, is different from other 3-D printing companies like MakerBot. It doesn’t want to put 3-D printers in homes or sell them to other businesses. Instead, Shapeways runs its own factories in New York City and Eindhoven, The Netherlands, where designers can send their work to get printed for them. That means Shapeways can use higher-end materials — like brass, silver, and even gold — to make products. The company’s factories now print about 1,500 products a day, or one product every minute, and according to Weijmarshausen, the day when these factories can mass produce products is not far away.

“I think that’s the future we will go to,” Weijmarshausen said when asked whether Shapeways is moving toward large scale production. “It sounds crazy, but we’re very close to printing these things. Semiconductors already are possible. You can print integrated circuits. You can print transistors. Basically, a radio could already be printed.”

The ability to bring low-cost manufacturing back to city centers and closer to the designers who are creating these products will do a lot of good for innovation, Weijmarshausen said. The more designers and manufacturers can collaborate in real-time — an obvious issue in the offshore manufacturing movement — the more creative and lean they can be.

“This is a different way of manufacturing. It has way less limits. If we want to explore what’s possible, product engineers need to work with manufacturing guys,” he said. “Therefore having manufacturing facilities throughout the U.S. and throughout the world makes total sense.”

Homepage Image: Eli Schmidt, Courtesy of Shapeways

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Hiring or Renting?

By Lloyd Graff.

As an owner of two small businesses, which are doing pretty well these days, I am in the throes of a daily decision making quandary. Do I hire more people, rent more people, or just watch which way the wind is blowing? This is a very real problem for me and I sweat it almost every week.

The unemployment/employment numbers display the split personality of the current American economy starkly. The Unemployment Rate and number of Unemployed Persons have decreased significantly over the last year. However, in June, the average workweek for all employees on private non-farm payrolls was only 34.5 hours for the fourth straight month. (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm)

The Graff-Pinkert & Co. used machinery business is busy. Our machine cleaning and repainting area has been understaffed for years. This year we finally decided to do something about it by hiring a second shift. Rex Magagnotti, who watches over the plant, in addition to his major role in buying and selling machinery for the company, has been urging me too attend to our log jam of dirty machines for a long time. I hesitated spending the money, largely because of all of the add-on costs of full-time employees, particularly expensive health insurance. The compromise was to hire part-time people, summer people, and rented employees from temp agencies. This way I can get my elbow grease and cleaned machines without a sense of deep commitment to the folks we hire.

Like many small business owners, I am deeply invested in my employees.

Many have worked for the company for more than 20 years. They are members of the “Graff-Pinkert family.”

This was not the approach I took when I hired a new electrician and office manager last year. They were clearly full-timers, and I was all in with them. But for a second shift, I just wanted hardworking summer folks or people who knew they were temporary, and expendable. It’s the new American workforce, less than 30 hours a week, rental people from temp agencies like Manpower or contract workers.

I have learned that some workers also play the game very skillfully, maneuvering their hours so they can draw unemployment pay for many months after their mediocre short-term work ends. I find this annoying, but if somebody is going to spend their creative talent on gaming the system, so be it. I have better things to do than worry about their petty shrewdness. They will never end up with good long-term jobs.

The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) is certainly one reason part-time employment is soaring and full-time jobs are scarce. As a hirer, I am always struggling with the calculation of whether a person is worthy of full-time employment and the huge premium I pay for such services. It is very difficult for a potential low skill hire to make a convincing case that they are worthy of the full timer premium.

The issue of the day is the push to almost double the minimum wage to $15 per hour. It is the rebound reaction to the dearth of high paying full-time jobs. If the inflated minimum wage becomes local or national law, the sure result will be shorter hours, fewer jobs, and high real unemployment. It will mean young workers will not get the vital experience they need to become productive, high-paying earners.

I sympathize with poorly paid part-time workers. Their plight stinks. I look at Graff-Pinkert’s best employees who learned skills on the job and prospered over the years. Today they would have a harder time getting in the door and proving their worth.

There is still plenty of opportunity for bright, ambitious, hard-working people – even those without a lot of book learning. But unless they have connections or good luck, the economy and the politicians are inadvertently pushing them into 29-hour jobs or difficult to stitch together freelancing gigs.

It’s tough out there, but I have to watch my bottom line. I will be rationing my full-time jobs and looking for talent for the short term.

Question: Is $15.00 per hour the right minimum wage?

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First Exoskeleton Gets FDA Approval For U.S. Sales

Courtesy of Popular Science. By Francie Diep.

The ReWalk exoskeleton helps people with spinal-cord injuries sit, stand, and walk.

A motorized exoskeleton, designed to help paralyzed people walk again, just earned U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. It is the first such device to do so.

The device, called ReWalk, straps on user’s bodies and helps those with certain spinal-cord injuries to sit, stand, and walk. Users have to wear a backpack to carry the ReWalk’s computer and battery. They also have to wear a wrist device with buttons to tell the motorized legs when to stand up, sit down, or start walking. But it’s not like users are punching every step into their wrist controllers–ReWalk legs also respond to movements of the user’s torso, so that leaning forward triggers a step. (Popular Science gave the device an Invention Award in 2009 and a Best of What’s New award in 2011.)

The new FDA approval means ReWalk‘s maker, Argo Medical Technologies, or Argo, can now market its products in the U.S. Over the past few years, Argo and other companies that make similar products have tested their exoskeletons on people. Argo has previously sold ReWalk devices to rehabilitation centers in the U.S. but the FDA approval marks the start of sales of ReWalk devices to Americans for private use. Each device will likely cost $65,000 to $68,000, theTelegram reported in March.

The FDA’s announcement about ReWalk details what it is—and isn’t—cleared for. It’s approved for specific spinal cord injuries, but it’s not recommended for people with other severe neurological injuries. The FDA also says users should undergo training before strapping the ReWalk on, and so should a helper for the user—maybe a spouse or a home health aide. Interestingly, the announcement also says the device isn’t for climbing stairs. This is a departure from some earlier news reports about the ReWalk, which showed users going up stairs in the exoskeleton.

Read more here.

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The Right Place at the Right Time

By Noah Graff.

See the video below

A few weeks ago, I published a blog about my video series on YouTube. It is a documentary of my Greyhound Bus trip from Chicago to San Francisco when I was 19, called Where Are You Going?

The series centers around the colorful passengers who included a chef from a nudist spa, a 36-year-old bi-sexual grandfather, a man who had just gotten out of jail, and a guy who lives on a ranch in seclusion, house sitting for free.

I also filmed my dad driving me to the bus station, imparting some last minute wisdom. One of the things he told me has stayed in my mind over the years. We discussed the concept of “being in the right place, at the right time.” I told him that I hoped the coming bus ride was going to change my life. He responded by saying that if a person is in the right state of mind, he can find meaning and importance in all kinds of places, perhaps anywhere. Therefore, being in the “right place” is mostly caused by the person, rather than mere chance or luck. The idea has proved true for me throughout my life, including during the experience of the bus ride, as I had hoped. People on the bus told me stories that I could never have made up, their views opened my mind, and they gave me an opportunity to create a unique work of art.

In the short video included in this blog, my diverse fellow passengers illuminate my dad’s belief that a person’s frame of mind affects what happens in one’s life. A person’s ability to see special things when they come along is essential for finding happiness and success.  Please have a watch. It’s my favorite video of the series.

Question: What is the best trip you ever took?

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Potential or Experience

By Lloyd Graff.

A young Billy Beane

In Michael Lewis’ great book, Moneyball, he writes about Billy Beane, now GM of the Oakland A’s, when he was a high school phenom outfielder. Beane was a sure first round draft pick, which at that time meant a $100,000 signing bonus. But there was conflict in the Beane household. His parents wanted him to sign a pro contract right out of high school. Billy wanted to go to Stanford on a full ride.

Beane told Lewis that he started doubting his own baseball talent after his junior year of high school. He saw other star players catching up to him physically, and his hitting confidence was starting to erode. His senior year he was still an exceptional player, but in his heart of hearts he doubted himself.

Billy Beane took the money and did make the Majors, but he was a fringe player. When he had the chance to get into baseball management he gladly gave up the uniform. He regretted rejecting his opportunity to attend Stanford.

Now Beane is considered one of the smartest General Managers in the game. His team is in first place with a tiny payroll. He just traded his number one minor league prospect and two other highly regarded minor leaguers to the Chicago Cubs for two quality Major League pitchers, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Oakland is now one of the favorites to reach the World Series.

I believe Billy Beane’s memory of himself as an 18-year-old “next big thing” had  a lot to do with the trade. I think he is a bit of a skeptic about “potential.”

I see a parallel debate when running a business, whether it is machining, retail or software. You must constantly weigh potential versus production in your staff. If you go with mostly youth and enthusiasm rather than pros with at least 10,000 hours experience, you are going to run into trouble with errors in judgment that could screw up the business. If you go with seasoned pros you may see a lack of risk taking and a tendency to try to recreate out of date successes. The knack is to know when to bring in youth and when to rely on experience. If you can keep experienced people motivated and willing to expand their knowledge you have something quite special.

I wish I had a guaranteed formula for success, but I think observing the Billy Beane approach in baseball is instructional. Stock up on youth and promise, but don’t be afraid to trade it in for veterans when they can seal the deal.

Question: Is your company looking to hire experienced pros or potential?

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SEMA Garage Takes Aftermarket Parts From Concept to Reality

Courtesy of The New York Times. By ROY FURCHGOTT.

The Specialty Equipment Manufacturing Association, better known as SEMA, doesn’t hold its annual trade show until November each year. But the organization’s focus on aftermarket parts has found another, full-time outlet: the SEMA Garage.

The garage in Diamond Bar, Calif., about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, opens officially on July 17 with an open house. But the facility, which has gathered under one roof the technology to design, test and sell aftermarket car parts, is already working. The idea behind it is to put more precisely built specialty parts on shelves faster than had been possible.

Although the SEMA Garage was built with mass produced parts in mind, an inaugural one-off a complicated trim piece for a custom ’34 Ford coupe — demonstrates much of what the garage was designed to do. The part is destined for the Whiskey Runner, which Jimmy Shine of the So-Cal Speed Shop has been building for Billy Gibbons, a hot rod aficionado and ZZ Top’s guitarist, over the last five years.

Read more here.

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Is Soccer Boring?

By Lloyd Graff.

All hail soccer, the great American sport, as we cheer and lament the U.S. futbol team that competed valiantly in the World Cup in Brazil. After the tournament, many of our best players will return to their respective European pro teams, and we will once again become indifferent to the boring “minor” league soccer (MLS) played in our country.

The MLS has been piddling along now for 18 years, following other incarnations of the world’s favorite sport in the U.S. Now it is reformulating itself once again, with some of the richest guys in the world buying into what they see as a virgin market opportunity–a chance to appeal to the millions of middle class kids running all over the “pitch,” only to ignore the game once they reach their twenties.

Can it play in Paducah? Will Americans ever buy into professional football (soccer) like they do in England, Argentina and Mexico?

I think it really is possible. Some people theorize that the utter ineptitude of the MLS folk to generate an audience is really a brilliant conspiracy by several NFL team owners to sabotage the league and safeguard the value of their National Football League properties. It may sound a bit far-fetched to bamboozle soccer as a defensive move, but the explosive growth in the value of an NFL franchise over the last 18 years coinciding with the boring product of the MLS makes the theory at least worthy of mention.

It is possible that with American kids’ participation in American football and baseball both on the wane, those super wealthy people pushing the rebranding of soccer here are finally going to strike a chord with the American public. American football is struggling with litigation and the devouring of its best players by injury. I think the game has peaked both in participation and popularity. Baseball is importing much of its talent from the Caribbean and Asia. This is also not a recipe for long term American fan support.

The National Hockey League, a truly international league, has found new life spurred by suburban hockey rinks and HDTV that finally makes the game television worthy. The NBA is also an example of a successful world league with its Champion San Antonio Spurs. The polyglot group of guys from Argentina to Mars is an archetype for world peace. But basketball still has its heart in the city playgrounds and backyard backboards throughout America.

Sports do go up and down in popularity. Could anybody have predicted the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts 10 years ago?

In my opinion, it is too early to say whether football (soccer) can actually take off as a spectator sport here. But I do think that this time around, some serious foreign money is really going to try to change our taste. If Americans can learn to love sushi and make the avocado the equivalent of the apple in today’s kitchen, we can adopt the world’s favorite sport.

The National Football League should be worried.

Question 1: Is the NFL too brutal?

Question 2: Is soccer boring?

 

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Asian Steel Industry Eats America’s Lunch

Courtesy of The Huffington Post. Leo W. Gerard.

In the depth of the recession, some foreign countries made a simple calculation. They’d subsidize their steel industries even though that violates international trade rules. It paid off by keeping their citizens employed, paid and fed.

These countries banked on dumping their excess steel in the United States. That has cost good, family-supporting American jobs. It has wounded the American steel industry. And it has emboldened foreign countries to continue eating America’s lunch by violating international trade laws.

Last week, Mario Longhi, President and Chief Executive Officer of U.S. Steel, and Iasked Congress to enforce the law. We’re not seeking special deals or subsidies or handouts. We’re asking Congress to implement American and international trade laws to level the field of competition. If the same rules apply to everyone, U.S. industry can compete and win. And American workers can retain their jobs and afford their daily bread.

A simple story explains how this works. Just as the economic crisis hit, China began dumping Oil Country Tubular Goods, the pipes used in oil and gas exploration, into the American market. Dumping occurs when foreign manufacturers export products at prices lower than they charge in their home country or at prices below the cost of production.

American steel companies would quickly go bankrupt if they set prices below the cost of production. Many foreign manufacturers can get away with it because part of their production cost is offset by government subsidies. In 2011, half of the world’s 46 top steel companies were state-owned. They don’t live by the same rules American companies do.

Government subsidies are fine if all of the beneficiary company’s products are sold in their home market. But international trade rules prohibit sale of subsidized goods to other countries because their artificially low prices would distort the market and destroy companies that aren’t propped up by their governments.

To keep their citizens employed and sustain vital industries like steel, lots of countries ignore the rules. That’s what China was doing in 2008 with Oil Country Tubular Goods. A half dozen steel companies and my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), won a dumping case against them in 2009. Tariffs were placed on China’s Oil Country Tubular Goods to offset the value of the illegal subsidies. After that, Chinese shipments of the pipe to the United States virtually stopped.

When enforcement of the rules leveled the field of competition, American companies and American workers won.

This is an important story because it involves pipe essential to natural gas drilling. Americans are reveling in the possibility that hydraulic fracturing will make them energy independent. But there’s no point in achieving energy independence if failure to enforce trade laws condemns America to steel dependency.

Here’s what Longhi told the Senate Finance Committee last week: “It is not enough to open new markets for American goods and services; I submit to you that the greater economic and national security, and, indeed, moral imperative is to ensure that the rules governing trade in our own market are respected.”

In the past 18 months, American steel producers and the USW have issued demands for that respect 40 times, filing 40 antidumping and countervailing duty petitions. That’s the largest number of steel cases since 2001.

Among them is yet another Oil Country Tubular Goods case, this one against South Korea and eight other nations. In February, the International Trade Administration announced preliminary duties against the eight: India, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam. But it exempted South Korea.

The International Trade Administration’s final determination is expected in July. It should include South Korea, which exports 98 percent of the pipe it produces to the United States. Fearing the effect of sanctions, South Korea has stepped up exports. Last year, it shipped to the United States an average of 27,000 tons a month. In May, it sent eight times that amount — 214,000 tons.

That subsidized steel takes bread off of American tables. Thousands of American steelworkers have been laid off. And untold additional Americans whose work depends on the steel industry have lost hours or jobs.

The cost is wide ranging. As steel production declines, so does coal, limestone and iron ore mining. Coke and iron ore pelletizing plant operations suffer. Truckers, railroad workers and barge hands who deliver supplies to mills all lose work. Scrap dealers who provide steel for recycling, as well as pump, industrial fan and valve manufacturers who supply mill replacement parts lose business. Profits shrink at restaurants, grocery stores and shops near mills. School districts, municipalities and states all lose tax revenue.

Considering all of that, it’s easy to understand why foreign countries would try to keep their steel furnaces operating, even if that meant violating international rules.

Read more here.

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Harvard Robot Whiz Invents a Way to Weave Facades Out of Clay

Courtesy of Wired. BY JOSEPH FLAHERTY.

Harvard grad student Jared Friedman is a designer who is trying to use one of the most precise industrial tools on the planet to produce architectural facades with the earthy charm of your grandmother’s macramé. The budding architect, and his classmates Olga Mesa and Hea Min Kim, were tired of the smooth glass and concrete skins of modern buildings and wanted to create a new architectural style by employing 3-D printing technology.

Low-cost 3-D printers that produce tchotchkes made of melted plastic wouldn’t satisfy Friedman’s architectural ambitions, so he had to build his own machine. “We were tired of seeing the same things over and over being 3-D printed within the design community,” he says. “The scale was always very small due to the size of standard 3-D printing machines and everything relies on a ‘layer upon layer’ process.”

Friedman appropriated a robotic arm from a factory floor and bolted a giant clay-filled syringe to it. He created CAD files that specified paths for the robot to follow and as it progressed clay was squeezed like toothpaste from the metallic cylinder onto an irregular surface forming a two-foot square panel. Half-inch thick clay coils were woven, braided, and built-up in patterns on the panel, but despite their futuristic pedigree they were actually inspired by much older manufacturing processes. “Tools such as the industrial robot can allow for designers to revisit techniques such as weaving, and leverage the abilities granted by the robot to produce new and unique products,” says Friedman. After the pattern was completed the panel’s edges were trimmed, they were fired in a kiln, and assembled on a steel scaffold.

Turning an industrial robot into an artistic tool required fine tuning of the controller software as well as the mixture of clay it extrudes. Friedman’s goal was to create subtle variations in the panels while maintaining tight control at points where the panels would be anchored to the buildings.”The biggest challenges involved striking the right balance between what was controlled and what was uncontrolled,” he says. “We wanted to have enough control to print a panel with a fair degree of accuracy to the initial design, but we also wanted to allow for some of the irregularities to occur that make each panel unique.”

Combining dozens of these panels provides architects with an opportunity to create architectural facades that have the warmth of handwoven fabrics while stretching for hundreds of square feet. Friedman and company have no plans to commercialize their creations, but are excited to have wrung new possibilities out of old hardware.

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