Vinyl Fetish: Booming Sales of Old-Fashioned Albums Makes for Process Headaches


Old School...

Old School…

Your correspondent, as one may discern from the posts, is a big supporter of analogue as in fountain pens, pencils (especially from Japan), books made of something called ‘paper,’ mechanical watches and music recordings stamped into vinyl (polyvinyl chloride, as I understand it).

The sales of vinyl are booming. Last year, according to Nielsen, Canadians bought over 500,000 albums. Since this data covers primarily new pressings it vastly understates the market for vinyl albums because there is also a big and growing market for used, vintage vinyl. Nevertheless, proportionally, the increase is dramatic and (pleasantly) surprising. The half-million in sales is 35X increased from a decade ago and a 30% increase from 2014. In the U.S. sales were about 12 million in 2015.

As Process Excellence professionals we understand the importance not only of a lean flow from end-to-end in the process, but the impact of a bottleneck in the flow. In the case of creating consistent quality vinyl albums there are a number of potential bottlenecks but one of the most severe surrounds the presses and the knowledge to operate them optimally. It is a warning to other industries as well as an opportunity. The warning is that organizations can introduce unintended risk into their business strategy when they “update” their foundational technologies and retire (figuratively and literally) the equipment, tools, and human know-how that underpinned the prior process approach.

The unintended risk is that later on the need arises to expand or to innovate and the core know-how is lost, replaced by technologies that didn’t require those skills (often so that lower paid employees, or no employees at all in the case of full automation). This one reason why Toyota has a program to have some of their best workers build parts by hand using basic equipment in order to keep their knowledge of metallurgy and other disciplines sharp (see the article “Dumb Automation“).

This is where the story of Viryl, a new Canadian company is fascinating. It has designed and is building innovative new presses for the record industry. In a Globe and Mail interview its CEO Chad Brown said:

“The idea is to help the industry get rid of its own bottlenecks,” says Chad Brown, Viryl’s chief executive officer, who plans to continually refine the machines to add value beyond just the short-term. “We’re in this to stay. We’re not gonna go away after a year.”

“We’re going to collect all this dark information that’s never been known in record pressing before,” Mr. Brown says. “Nozzle pressure, temperature, all this data that’s necessary to actually make a perfect record. In the fifties and sixties, they didn’t have this technology.”

When digital arrived, pressing plants slowly and then rapidly disappeared. Presses where scrapped and the know-how to run them faded. Now with demand rising there is a scramble to find and refurbish the old presses and to hire people to run them. The challenge is that the skill to repair and run them is a significant bottleneck. Even when presses are up and running, quality is often uneven (I have seen and heard this first hand with various new pressings purchased over the past couple of years including an expensive and poorly pressed reissue of Led Zeppelin vinyl). Viryl in an interesting approach because they are using their know-how (Chad Brown used to own and run a vinyl pressing plant) to create a process that will require less know-how to run well (at least, this appears to be their strategy) but which they will continue to improve through scientific study.

Acoustic Sounds, out of Salina Kansas, is pursuing a vertical integration model to ensure the quality of its pressings. They have purchased and rebuilt several presses and have assembled what seems to be a highly experienced team of engineers and process experts (I have bought quite a few vinyl products from Acoustic Sounds and have been blown away by the quality of their jazz reissues). Each approach is valid and is a response to the process problems the vinyl recording industry faces: a center of expertise approach to provide a process innovation to an industry (Viryl) and the assembly of an end-to-end process stream that is seeking to establish process integrity at each link in the chain (Acoustic Sounds).

See also a profile of Viryl at the site the Vinyl Factory.

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