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Lexmark Plant Tour: Big Data Discussion Centers on Business Rationale

Posted By David Brousell, December 09, 2014 at 7:37 AM, in Category: Transformative Technologies

In the third of a series of plant tours and round table discussions held this year, members of the Manufacturing Leadership Council gathered at Lexmark International’s Boulder, CO, plant to see how printer toner and photoconductor drums are made and to discuss one of the hottest, and most controversial, technology topics of the day – Big Data.

The event, co-hosted by the ML Council and John Gagel, Corporate Manager of Sustainability at Lexmark and a member of the ML Council’s Board of Governors, enabled Council members and invited guests to see first-hand a product that people use in their daily business and personal lives but whose complex science and chemistry is rarely seen or understood.

During a nearly two-hour tour, Council members learned how the Lexmark Boulder plant, originally built by former parent IBM in 1967 (Lexmark was formed as an independent company in 1991), makes printer cartridge toner, a bulk polymer that incorporates colorants and what are known as Extra Particulate Additives to provide proper material flow. The plant, which produces 5 million kgs of toner per year, is the only such plant in the U.S. that both develops and manufactures the product, Lexmark officials said.

Council members also witnessed how Lexmark makes photoconductor drums, a key printer component, using a multi-dipped coating process. Today, a drum is capable of generating 100,000 pages, but in the future, Lexmark officials said, that limit could be tripled.

Following the tour, Council members convened to discuss how their companies are thinking about Big Data and analytics, how these are being used in various parts of the enterprise, and how to manage what nearly everyone believes will be significantly larger volumes of data generated from multiple internal and external sources in the years ahead.

The key to the successful use of Big Data and analytics, Council members were told during a special presentation from Eileen Ridley, an attorney with Council member company Foley & Lardner, is that Big Data initiatives must have a clear business purpose and rationale, a requirement seemingly elementary but often either overlooked or under appreciated.

Ridley emphasized that manufacturing companies need to assess how Big Data projects will impact their business as well as the legal, ethical, and moral considerations that attend the gathering, analysis, usage, and storage of data. But the ability to gather and use data is only the first step, she said.  The next step is deciding whether a particular Big Data project makes sense from a business perspective and should be undertaken in the first place.

Balancing potential benefits of Big Data projects with possible liabilities is an issue many companies, particularly in the consumer realm, are grappling with. Council members weighed the benefits of companies tracking and gathering data about consumer habits in order to provide targeted products and buying incentives, for example, with issues such as identity theft, privacy, and even surveillance. Two recent, widely publicized data breaches, at Target and JP Morgan, underscored the issue.

“This is the future of litigation,” Ridley said. “The public doesn’t understand the usage of Big Data.”

How might Big Data and analytics change how manufacturing companies operate and manage their plant floors? As companies attempt to become more empirical and scientific in their decision-making, the use of Big Data and analytics in on-going production operations has become an inherent need, one Council member said. This is a big change from the “tribal knowledge” which had governed operations for many years. And a number of Council members expressed the hope that greater predictive capabilities will attend Big Data projects as experience with analytics is gained.

Looking ahead five to 10 years, a strong consensus emerged among Council members that Big Data and analytics would be best employed in the service of customers – through a better understanding of the kinds of products customers need and want and through the development of better services to improve satisfaction. In addition, Council members expressed the hope that Big Data will be used more effectively in the future to improve manufacturing operational performance. 

“Big Data can also help the world become more sustainable,” one Council member said.

The latest Lexmark tour followed plant tour events at Campbell Soup’s Pepperidge Farm plant in October and American Axle’s factory in August.

In February of next year, Council members will gather at Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet fighter factory in Fort Worth, TX, for its next plant tour and round table event to discuss the challenges and the opportunities of digital manufacturing. See more on http://www.mlcouncil.com.


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Written by David Brousell

Global Vice President, General Manager and Editorial Director of the Manufacturing Leadership Council



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