Trash and Innovation

In the past, I have written about jobs and productivity. All the talk in the media today is about innovation and productivity. With a presidential election around the corner, I am sure we will start to hear much more about innovation leading the growth of the U.S. economy and out state of chaos it is in now.

As I pointed out in the earlier article, increased efficiencies and productivity means that American businesses have become capable of producing the same levels of output with a reduced workforce or “doing more with less.”  There is no better example than the trash trucks operating in my neighborhood. You might wonder what innovation there might be in picking up garbage and here is the story.

On trash days as I drove out to work in the mornings, those big lumbering trash trucks were always a nuisance. Big, lumbering and scary they usually occupied much of the road and you had to wait till they made a turn and went elsewhere. Apart from the driver, there would be two helpers who ran to either side of the road, picked up the trash and emptied it into the compactor in the back. When done, one of them would whistle to the driver and they would hitch a ride on the rear bumper till the next driveway and trash cans. On vacation in Paris, France, I have seen the same story.  The only differences are  that the French trash trucks seemed to be designed with a little more panache and for some reason their trash bags were dark green.

The picture now is quite different. The trash trucks in my neighborhood have become quite high tech. Each comes with a robot arm that bends in multiple degrees of freedom to grab a trash can, lift it, empty it, return it back to its spot and even shut an errant lid. The dexterity of these robot arms has to be seen to be believed. Here is a video of a similar (but not quite the same) trash truck.

The first time I saw one of these, it brought back images from the movie “Star Wars.” The bigger innovation is on the productivity front. These new trucks require just one driver reducing the trash team from three to one. The truck accomplishes its work much faster. my guess is that there is a 30 percent to 40 percent savings in time. All of this translates to significant productivity improvements and cost savings for the company in employee costs, diesel and possibly fewer trucks (capital costs) to cover a given area or neighborhood.

I can hear someone say that the trucks had to be modified to include the robot arm capability. Fact is that this is not very complicated technology. This is a hydraulics and controls problem that was solved long ago and has been in use in many other industries. Overall, I would think that the Return on Investment (ROI) from this automation must be substantial for these companies to do a better job of collecting trash.

This is what innovation is all about whether collecting trash or delivering better/cheaper goods and services. I have spent many years of my professional career developing and implementing solutions that reduce cost, deliver speed and a multi-fold ROI. In these days of capitalism vs. socialism discussions, it is key to remember that innovation, many times, is driven by motives of profit and outdoing the competition with better/faster customer service. The nagging question still is, what happened to those two other guys whose jobs got eliminated in this process. My only hope is that they got better and more valuable jobs that deserved their human efforts and talents, for the future is all about increased automation.

The days are not far off when we will be driven to work – if we have to go to an office – by driver-less cars (like in the futuristic movie “Minority Report”) and flown across the planet by unpiloted drone aircrafts. That’s a story for another day.