How the World Ran Out of Everything
Plenty has been written about the supply constraints the world is facing during the pandemic – semiconductor chips to shipping containers, chemicals to car parts. This piece however, brings to light the role of ‘Just In Time’ manufacturing as a cause for this supply disruption. The huge benefits of a lean and mean supply chain and hence asset turns helping companies eke out extra returns on capital over the past few decades. This combined with globalisation resulting in tightly inter-connected global supply networks left little buffer for times such as now, triggering a debate about whether the world should revert to some slack in supply chains at the cost of efficiency.
“In a time of extraordinary upheaval in the global economy, Just In Time is running late….“It’s sort of like supply chain run amok,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “In a race to get to the lowest cost, I have concentrated my risk. We are at the logical conclusion of all that.”
…The most prominent manifestation of too much reliance on Just In Time is found in the very industry that invented it: Automakers have been crippled by a shortage of computer chips — vital car components produced mostly in Asia. Without enough chips on hand, auto factories from India to the United States to Brazil have been forced to halt assembly lines.”
And the connectedness and the cascading impact of it all:
“In Conshohocken, Pa., Mr. Romano is literally waiting for his ship to come in.
He is vice president of sales at Van Horn, Metz & Company, which buys chemicals from suppliers around the world and sells them to factories that make paint, ink and other industrial products.
In normal times, the company is behind in filling perhaps 1 percent of its customers’ orders. On a recent morning, it could not complete a tenth of its orders because it was waiting for supplies to arrive.
The company could not secure enough of a specialized resin that it sells to manufacturers that make construction materials. The American supplier of the resin was itself lacking one element that it purchases from a petrochemical plant in China.
One of Mr. Romano’s regular customers, a paint manufacturer, was holding off on ordering chemicals because it could not locate enough of the metal cans it uses to ship its finished product.
“It all cascades,” Mr. Romano said. “It’s just a mess.””
Yet it seems unlikely that Just In Time will be discarded:
“No pandemic was required to reveal the risks of overreliance on Just In Time combined with global supply chains. Experts have warned about the consequences for decades.
In 1999, an earthquake shook Taiwan, shutting down computer chip manufacturing. The earthquake and tsunami that shattered Japan in 2011 shut down factories and impeded shipping, generating shortages of auto parts and computer chips. Floods in Thailand the same year decimated production of computer hard drives.
Each disaster prompted talk that companies needed to bolster their inventories and diversify their suppliers.
Each time, multinational companies carried on.
…. “The real question is, ‘Are we going to stop chasing low cost as the sole criteria for business judgment?’” said Mr. Shih, from Harvard Business School. “I’m skeptical of that. Consumers won’t pay for resilience when they are not in crisis.””