Factory of the future is a misnomer

There is a real hype around the “of the future” nowadays (we write November 2017) in France. Everything seems to be “of the future” and it started with the factories supposed to soon buzz with the sound of toiling robots and frantic printing 3D printers.

“of the future” sounds great, full of promises of extraordinary technologies and unbelievable possibilities. A kind of science fiction world, full of flying cars by the year 2000, as we were told in my childhood…

>Lisez-moi en français

What bothers me is that the described factories of the future and their promises are based on  already available technologies. So what is left “of the future” then?

The “factory of the future” was probably an answer to the German “Industry 4.0”. As usual the national pride did not allow to rally a foreign initiative and prefers to reinvent the whole thing and rebranding it.

By naming the concept “factory of the future”, I fear that many decision makers understand that the technologies are not fully ready yet, that it’s still a concept for research and it will take a while until everything is mature and affordable for the medium-sized companies to pay closer attention.

What leaves the new manufacturing ways and the factory in the future is the postponed decision to go for it. I repeat: the necessary technologies are already available.

This false feeling of having time to consider and decide could have dire consequences, the risk of being disrupted by a more daring competitor is more likely for tomorrow morning than later in time.

As nice and promising as it sounds,  “factory of the future” seems to me an ambiguous misnomer.
Comments welcome.

Author Chris HOHMANN

Author Chris HOHMANN

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Can Industry 4.0 rejuvenate Total Productive Maintenance?

In this post:

The youngest among my blog readers may not understand what I mean with Total Productive Maintenance, this pre-Lean management approach to maximize machines and equipment effectiveness and aiming to improve companies’ performances.

TPM in a nutshell

In a nutshell, Total Productive Maintenance or TPM in short, originated in Japan, 1971. It was a participative spin-off of the american Productive Maintenance (a mix of maintenance policies to maximize machines’ availability and effectiveness), aiming to minimize all kind of losses by involving every department and everyone.

TPM had its heyday in the 1985-1995s in the western companies and failed to get mainstream despite the efforts to rebrand it Total Productive Management. The original name and much of the content, even so transposable to almost any activity, was too much linked to industrial machinery maintenance.

Total Productive Maintenance gave way to Lean Manufacturing and somehow got absorbed by Lean. TPM brought Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) indicator to the world, a still very popular KPI nowadays.

Industry 4.0 and Total Productive Maintenance 2.0?

My basic assumption for this prospective thinking is that industry 4.0 environments will be highly automated so that the human factor will have lesser impact on the machines / cells / lines /workshops performance. Conversely machines’ utilization will regain focus.

Performance is determined by market requirements, but it will continue to be a mix of responsiveness, speed (time to market, lead time… ) and quality, with a higher expectation for agility than today. Costs may come second when dealing with high customization.

Performance will be mainly driven by machines’ availability, speed and yield, the latter being roughly the right first time rate. In other words OEE.

Availability is key for agility and responsiveness. This stresses the need of preventive maintenance and quick changeovers. Preventive maintenance starts with daily cleaning and inspection in order to keep all equipment in operational state and detect any wear or damage early. Some equipment will probably also need periodic calibration and geometry checks to ensure accuracy e.g 3D printing.

These tasks may be passed to former operators now converted into level one maintenance technicians. Further more in-depth periodic inspection will also be required by more expert staff that can be either company’s own or third-party. This reminds of the ‘autonomous maintenance’ pillar of TPM.

TPM autonomous maintenance in 4.0 environment

Autonomous maintenance intent was/is to give operators greater “ownership” of their equipment in order for them to take care and use responsibly. By increasing operators’ technical knowledge of the equipment they use and entitle them to do the simple daily maintenance tasks, autonomous maintenance aim was/is to:

  • ensure equipment is constantly well-cleaned and lubricated
  • maintenance experts’ time is freed for higher-level tasks
  • emergent issues are noticed and identified before they become failures
  • enrich the job of production operators.

if operators showed interest and demonstrated capacities, they could be trained further and assist maintenance experts for more complex maintenance tasks and even take part in repairs and overhauls.

In a industry 4.0 environment, the content of this ‘autonomous maintenance’ pillar of TPM must be adapted to the new technologies. It could encompass data management, using the digital twin, simulate… and require digital literacy.

In a industry 4.0 environment the role of operators as machine feeder, unloader and tool fitter may be marginalized thanks to automation. The jobs for production operators as we knew them may diminish and new jobs will be created requiring different skills and abilities, but not as many.

I could imagine recycling some of the former production operators into ‘autonomous maintenance’ operators, but my guestimate is that one operator could take care of 5 to 20 3D printers. The operator-to-equipment rate compared to traditional manufacturing will surely shrink. Besides, everyone will not show the necessary capacity to evolve.

Can Industry 4.0 rejuvenate Total Productive Maintenance?

As for the autonomous maintenance my guess is that chances are good, even so it may need to be updated in a new 2.0 version fitting the new technical environment.

Focus will be on equipment because of the investment, because of managers in love with tech, because equipment performance will be the main driver for (a production) company’s performance, and for probably more reasons.

For the other 7 traditional pillars I am not sure. You’re welcome to share your own thoughts.

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

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The cobot controversy part 2

The new robots arrive, the humans remain

This post is a personal reflection about a statement of German Labor Union “IG Metall” posted on the union’s Website https://www.igmetall.de/robotik-tagung-2015-17975.htm titled “The new robots arrive, the humans remain(Published November 26th, 2015 and still online June 2017).

From the original article, in short

The article opens on this statement: “A new generation of lightweight robots comes into the factories. IG Metall sees more opportunities than threats. Provided that the human being plays the leading role in the cooperation with the new robots, IG Metall chairman Jörg Hofmann emphasized at the robotics conference in Berlin. The new robots come: smaller, lighter and closer to humans (collaborative robots, i.e. cobots). IG Metall wants to take advantage of the opportunities created by the increasing use of lightweight robots and new forms of cooperation between man and machine in industry.”

The tone is set. The union is not opposed to see increasingly installing robots near humans, neither the idea of collaboration between humans and cobots, provided the human keeps the upper hand.

The union recognizes the opportunities the robots bring in: reduction of human exposure to monotone or health-endangering work and creation of new, qualified activities. It mentions nothing about extending the employability of aging workers though, like other authors highlight as an additional benefit.

In order to develop a new kind of cooperation between man and machine, new forms of work have to be encouraged with expanded job profiles and possibilities for action for the employees. For this, other qualifications are certainly necessary than today” explained Hofmann on the occasion of the meeting before works councils and representatives from science and politics.

At the same time, however, it is necessary to prevent people from being marginalized in the “ballet of lightweight robots“.

Ballet, I assume, is to be understood here as the choreography of man and cobot working together. For example: the cobots grabs a part, moves and present it to the worker and while the cobot is holding it, the worker can work on it. Once the human cycle done, the cobot will take the part away and grab a new one for a new cycle.

“Under the assumption that the exploitation potentials of the new robot generation are actually exhausted and the human robot collaboration is co-designed by works councils and trade unions”.

I am not sure about the meaning of the “assumption” but it is clear that the union wants to have a say about the future human-robot collaboration.

The article goes on with a warning:  in future, manless factories are not an option. While the worker teaches the robot, literally guiding him by hand thanks to ease of use, makes it possible to give the employees a new role.

The use of the new robots also offers opportunities to improve competitiveness and secure employment,” says the IG Metall chairman. It is a matter of intelligently combining the use of people and machines, which means that labor costs are, in sum, lower, while qualification and ergonomics are at a higher level. Added value creation and employment can therefore remain in Germany.

Article analysis: understanding the vantage point

In order to fully get the (underlying) messages of the speech, some premises should be reminded:

  • Labor unions in Germany are reputed as consensus-driven as compared to the traditional French unions which are more hard-liners, opponents and politically-ideologically driven
  • The hype around robot, automation, big data, machine learning and so on is not likely to fade soon
  • The rise of the robot in manufacturing, in whatever shape and size they’ll come, is an accepted fact
  • Beyond a government supported program, Germany developed a brand: Industrie 4.0
  • If Germany would refrain developing and using robots, cobots, etc. for the sake of safekeeping human jobs, another competing nation would take advantage of it
  • The development of those technologies and Germany’s leadership is key to ensure a future for German high-tech manufacturing equipment makers
  • Labor unions are primarily seeking to protect and improve workers’ conditions and benefits
  • Labor union’s existence makes sense as long as there is (human) labor and the union’s power is a function of their members count
  • The speech was delivered during a meeting before works councils and representatives from science and politics (not business)
  • The speech is a mixture of showing openness and ambition to play a key role in defining rules and use cases altogether. In order to maintain the union’s acceptance about robots, some (limiting) conditions must be accepted by the robots promoters / employers: the human workers keep the upper hand, should not be driven out (maneless factories) neither marginalized by automation.

It is suggested that all the automation frees the human worker from dangerous and mundane tasks, improves ergonomics (working conditions at large) and provides opportunities to enrich the job content and raise workers’ qualifications.

Beyond the stance, wishful thinking?

Let’s switch to investors’ and industrial engineers’ point of view. There is no point in systematically letting the humans have the upper hand when it comes to automation. It probably will not give an organization a competitive advantage nor systematically improve the process.

In some cases, unmanned factories are an option from the point of view of optimal investment and operations, so why should it be a taboo?

Why should investors and engineers agree to let the (probable) weakest link in the process (humans) have the upper hand? And why, if not because of threat, would they let works councils and trade unions co-design new processes?

Accepting those limitations while competition will probably not is accepting to join a race with self-inflicted handicaps.

It makes sense in politically correct parlance and for trying to avoid new luddites smashing the expensive new technology in anger.

Personal conclusion

My personal conclusion is that unions see the threat of losing their power as the number of workers will plummet, thanks to new technologies. On the other hand, fighting against new technology would endanger Germany’s leadership in the machine-tool and manufacturing equipment, right during the Industrie 4.0 hype.

Losing the leadership to foreign makers could also lead to lose jobs, hence weaken the unions’ importance.

Unions need to show their subscribers that they care to protect their interest in this uncertain working future and no one would benefit from a new luddites uprising.

I assume the German union goes the Realpolitik way and tries to find an acceptable compromise.

Comments welcome.

You may also like: The cobot controversy – part 1

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Reading between the lines: Safran puts Cobots at the Forefront of the Factory of the Future

Collaborative robots (cobots) are trendy and a must have for any organization claiming to go for the factory of the future. An article on Safran’s corporate website (May 2017) explains how the high-tech group is putting Cobots at the Forefront of the Factory of the Future. Of course, it caught my attention.

But what is hype and what is real necessity? The second question reading the article is about the emphasized statement that machines will not replace people. Could it hide the fear of some new luddites smashing the new robots?

The article in a nutshell

The article is an interview of the Head of the Group’s “Ergonomics” program. The article’s highlights are:

  • Safran defines 3 types of cobots:
    • those controlled by an operator located within the immediate vicinity of the system (co-manipulation)
    • those controlled remotely (teleoperation)
    • exoskeletons; electromechanical systems providing active assistance to employees
  • Safran’s guiding principle is to combine the capabilities of a robot with the skills of a human. The article highlights in bold letters that “At no point will machines replace people, they will simply assist them with their work. It is a real partnership”.
  • Cobots enable the employability of aging workers or those with disabilities as well as relieving workers from low value-added tasks.
  • Work organisation and content has to be reviewed, for instance how workers can be part in cobots maintenance
  • Cobots bring flexibility at low cost when compared to traditional robots.

More than hype?

My first question when reading the article’s title was: is the experimentation with cobots a must have for a high-tech company or a real necessity?

Well, it seems that in France at least, the sustained growing activity in aerospace industry meets some difficulties to attract qualified workers and young people eager to work as qualified mechanics. Cobots may well be part of the solution. If work is made easier and high-tech goes to the shopfloor, younger people may consider this career path.

Extend and keep the aging but highly qualified workforce is another expected benefit from bringing in collaborative robots.

Flexibility, with regards to low volumes and high variability is another benefit that can be checked as valid.

From my understanding, cobots are more than fancy new high-tech toys for geeks in industrial engineering. There are real issues to be solved and cobots may be, at least a part of the solution. Cobots and their applications being relatively new, experimentation is still required. Over time, the reality of expected benefits will show, as well as potential new usage and applications.

What about the statement “At no point will machines replace people”?

On the one hand, given the need to replace aging and retiring workforce and to cope with increasing activity in aerospace industry, as well as the nature of the jobs, it is most probably true that machines will not drive human workers out of business soon.

Full automation is hard to imagine with the low volume high mix that characterizes building aircrafts or aircraft equipment.

On the other hand, layoffs are periodically reported in this industry. They happen when companies merge, plants are relocated or when the sales are going down. For people fearing to lose their jobs, the coming of machines purposely installed to reduce the part of human work can be seen as a threat.

Therefore, preventing any new luddites smashing the cobots is understandable.

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Can new luddites smash robots in anger?

It strikes me how many robot and cobot promoters downplay the risk for human to lose jobs to automation, digitalization and the raise of new generation of robots. The fact that human workers will remain in business seems too forcefully highlighted to be true. Therefore my question: can new luddites smash robots in anger?

According to wikipedia, the Luddites were a group of English textile workers and weavers in the 19th century who destroyed weaving machinery as a form of protest, fearing that machines would replace their role in the industry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

When it comes to promote the new generations of robots and especially those able to work safely in close proximity with humans, and even collaborate (cobots, made of “collaborative” and “robot”), the benefits put to the forefront is to help workers alleviating dangerous or health-hazardous situations. Cobots would take care of lifting and manipulating heavy loads and/or the repeated motions to grasp, move and hold parts, while the human worker would concentrate on value-adding tasks.

For those workers which would be made unnecessary thanks to automation, their future would look good nevertheless, because they would be recycled in higher-value jobs, like industrial engineering, continuous improvement and many other occupations.

It looks to me like painting the future a bit too blue and who can reasonably believe all this wishful thinking?

Knowing that most of the human tasks can be transferred to robots, Artificial Intelligence and automation, or a combination of all, can we believe that all this high-tech in development and the significant investments required will be made only to improve workers’ jobs?

Human workers will remain the weak link in automated processes in many aspects, beginning with variability: variability in availability, mood, health, discipline, focus, speed of execution, performance…

Why would investors refrain to reap all the benefits of the new solutions?

And if some would, as an act of humanity, I believe many would not have much hesitation and once the competitiveness is challenged, I cannot believe that care for humanity would count for much.

So if human workers cannot be kept in their jobs, they have to be “recycled”.

Yet the speed of progress with autonomous systems is such that most unnecessary human actors will be out of occupation before they can convert to a new one.

Besides, who can believe that ALL outperformed workers can be recycled into specialized technicians, industrial engineers, problem solvers and continuous improvers?

Who can believe we would need so many, if need at all?

My assumption is that the robot and automation promoters fear a new luddites uprising who could smash the high-tech in anger for losing their jobs.

But unlike the 19th century workers, the threatened contemporary ones have overall higher education, access to instant information. It can’t be long they understand the risks by their own or by someone else’s analysis.

Therefore, it is necessary to downplay what could happen?

Comments welcome.

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The cobot controversy – Part 1

“The cobot controversy” is the title of a short article published by and on the Hannover Messe (“Hannover Fair”, the industry exhibition) website.

http://www.hannovermesse.de/en/news/the-cobot-controversy.xhtml

The article can be read in English as well as in German (assumed original version). This article proposes a “balanced” view about the impact of the collaborative robots (cobots) on the jobs in industry.

It caught my interest because most often the articles on those subjects, i.e. robots and future of jobs are single-sided.

  • On the one hand promoters of the factory of the future, industry 4.0 and robotics only highlight the alleged benefits of the new technologies.
  • On the other hands, prophets of doom predict nothing else than mass extinction of jobs.

Published by what can be considered the Mecca of Germany’s Industrie 4.0, the showplace of the most recent and finest developments in cyber physical systems, automation and more, it is fair (no pun intended…) to present the flip side of the coin.

Furthermore, some references to studies cited in the article are interesting. For instance the fact that “robots are replacing tasks, not jobs”. Digging deeper into this one, I read that usually analysts assume that the whole job is taken over by automation or robots when in fact only specific tasks are. This is mainly because the analysts remained on a macro level.

Now, can this invalidate the initial assumption: robots won’t replace humans at work?

When observing any person in its daily work, many of the tasks done are not described in the work instructions neither in the procedures and many tasks are not even part of the job description.

This can have several reasons:

  • people not sticking to the work instructions and taking liberties
  • reacting to unexpected situations that require decision and action on the spot
  • impossibility to describe every possible situation in work instructions and procedures
  • broad guidelines as instructions, relying on human know-how to carry out the tasks
  • etc.

The human workers defenders will argue that humans are irreplaceable when facing an unexpected situation, something that is likely to happen (very) frequently. They may be right, but with regards to old automation constraints and algorithm programming.

Until relatively recently, automation required accurate positioning and low variability for automated machines or robots to operate. Programming was linear and only capable to adjust on programmed variations. With the all the progress in various fields, objects positioning is no longer a hard constraint and systems are increasingly capable to adjust to unexpected situations.

Machines, in the broadest meaning of the word, are also increasingly capable to learn and adapt. Therefore, the assumption of the irreplaceable human is losing its validity as the machines’ abilities improve.

When observing humans work, is it also common to see them take deliberate liberties with the list of tasks, because of their inability to keep focused over time, because they are convinced to know better or because they lack the self-discipline to stick to instructions.

Humans introduce many variations and not always for good reasons, therefore praising the vast variety of tasks the human do must be considered with care. For the same reason, stating that “robots are replacing tasks, not jobs”, based on such observations without a critical discrimination of the necessity and added-value of the human tasks, might be wrong.

Why? When going for automation, the engineers will analyze the process and concentrate on the core activities. They may well ignore many special issues a human will take care of, but also ignore all the unnecessary or deviant activities human will add. More or less, this analysis will discriminate necessary from unnecessary tasks, value-added from waste.

Comments welcome.


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Cobots: more cooperation than collaboration

Cobot is the contraction of “collaborative” and “robot”, name and concept of a new kind of robots able to work literally hand-in-hand with humans without a safety fence between them.

fraunhoferCobots are hype and the word tends to become generic for any kind of robot working in close proximity of humans. A study from the German FRAUNHOFER – INSTITUT für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation IAO (2016) about first experiences with lightweight robots in manual assembly* distinguishes cooperation from collaboration.

*“Leichtbauroboter in der manuellen Montage – einfach einfach anfangen. Erste Erfahrungen von Anwenderunternehmen

This post is in great part my translation of the original study, with my personal comments.

>Lisez-moi en français

The study summarized different combinaisons in the use of robots near and with human operators, leading the authors to propose 5 classes:

  1. Robotic cell in which a robot operates on its own, fenced-off from humans by a safety fence. In such a case there is no human-robot collaboration.
  2. Coexistence of robot and human, a case in which both are close to each other but without a safety fence, yet have no common workspace. The robot has its own dedicated space distinct from the human one.
  3. Synchronized work: an organization in which human and robot share a common workspace but only one being active at a time. The work sequence is like a choreography between human and robot.
  4. Cooperation: the two “partners” work on their own tasks and can share a common space but not on the same product nor same part.
  5. Collaboration: an organization with common and simultaneous work on the same product or part. Typically the robot handles, presents and holds a part while the operator works on it.

Based on this classification, the studies reveals that collaboration is still seldom. Workers and robots work side by side on their own dedicated tasks, letting me conclude that for the time being, “cobots” are more cooperative than collaborative.

Motivation for investing in this kind of more expensive robots is mainly productivity improvement and secondary objectives are improvement of ergonomics (avoid heavy lifting for example) and testing innovative technologies.

The choice of this kind of solutions requires also new planning and management tools as well as consulting. New standards and regulations are in preparation that must be managed by companies themselves, not the system provider. All this carries additional costs.

Companies with no or only limited experience with these kinds of robots remain hesitant, therefore the authors of the study recommend to implement step wise, starting simple and going from human-robot coexistence to collaboration.

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What is Industry 4.0 – Juergen Kanz

“Industry 4.0” was coined in Germany and is becoming the European name of what is also known as Smart Factory, Smart Manufacturing, Industrial Internet among others.

Note: German and French write “industrie” instead of “industry”

In this slightly more than one hour video, Juergen Kanz, Systemic Thinker and Theory of Constraints expert, introduces to the concept of Industry 4.0

You may jump to 4:55 to the explanations of 4th industrial revolution and how the German federal government came to encourage this initiative, and 12:40 for the presentation of the structure of the “platform industrie 4.0”.

Juergen takes the viewers deeper into the details and implications before linking the opportunities of Industry 4.0 to the Theory of Constraints (ToC) Body of Knowledge (around 49:00).  ToC provides several mindsets, principles, methods and tools that may help to install and get the benefits of industrie 4.0 based solutions.

Re-SWOT your business with 3D printing in mind – Opportunities

In a prior post of this series, I explained why it is wise to (re)SWOT your business with 3D printing* in mind and in another one I suggested assessing the potential Threats your organization could be facing. In this post, it’s about Opportunities offered by the new manufacturing ways.

*I use “3D printing” and “additive manufacturing” interchangeably

Reminder: with the recent progresses in 3D printing (and 3D scanning) with regards to materials that can be 3D printed, every business is potentially at risk to discover a 3D printed substitute offered by an unsuspected and probably unknown competitor.

Yet what is a threat to some is an opportunity to others. The ability to offer a faster, cheaper, highly customized or whatever new product or alternative offer incredible new opportunities.

3D printing may break many barriers to entry, opening wide the gateway to previously protected markets.

Any competitor should evaluate the emerging opportunities to redefine the rules in his/her business with additive manufacturing and the opportunities to diversify or expand into new markets.

Some questions to assess the potential Opportunities your organization could be considering

The intent of the following questions is to make you think about the potential opportunities of a 3D printed product. The list of questions may evolve and readers are welcome to suggest additional or alternate ones (please use the comments).

  • Can you imagine any way 3D printing being applied in your business?
  • If 3D printing would be used in your business, what would it be for?
  • Can you think about a (more) disruptive way 3D printing could be used in your business?
  • What 3D printable product or substitute, if it (would) exist, may give you a cutting edge competitive advantage?
  • Could you offer a 3D printed substitute to existing products? What would its advantages be? What new or additional value would it bring? Would your customers want it?
  • Can you imagine expanding your business entering a new market (or segment) with a 3D printed product?
  • Are there any barriers to entry to a protected market you’ve considered that could be taken down with 3D printing / additive manufacturing?

You may have noticed that these questions are very similar to those about Threats. It is no surprise as opportunities for some are threats for others.


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Re-SWOT your business with 3D printing in mind – Threats

In a prior post of this series, I explained why it is wise to (re)SWOT your business with 3D printing* in mind. In this post, I propose some questions to assess the potential Threats your organization could be facing.

*I use “3D printing” and “additive manufacturing” interchangeably

With the recent progresses in 3D printing (and 3D scanning) with regards to materials that can be 3D printed, every business is potentially at risk to discover a 3D printed substitute offered by an unsuspected and probably unknown competitor.

Some questions to assess the potential Threats your organization could be facing
The intent of the following questions is to make you think about the potential threats of a 3D printed product. The list of questions may evolve and readers are welcome to suggest additional or alternate ones (please use the comments).

  • Can you imagine any way 3D printing being applied in your business?
  • If 3D printing would be used in your business, what would it be for?
  • Can you think about a more disruptive way 3D printing could be used in your business?
  • What 3D printable product or substitute, if it (would) exist, may disrupt your industry / your market / your business?
  • If a 3D printed substitute suddenly appeared, could you offer the same?
  • Does your organisation have any knowledge about 3D printing? Any know-how? If not, how and where would you quickly get the capacity to propose the 3D printed product? (me-too offering)
  • Did you evaluate how much savings a 3D printed substitute could earn?
  • Compared to 3D printed part or product, what are the advantages of your traditional way of manufacturing?
  • Would your customers continue to pay for if they had the choice with a new 3D printed substitute?

It is possible that going through the questions above, you sense opportunities more or as well as threats. Fine! Opportunities are the next topic to explore.


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