Automakers are starting to adjust their level of dependence on Just in Time manufacturing, a technique whereby manufacturers vastly reduce inventory holding costs by having the relevant inputs—car parts, for instance—arrive at the factory just before they’re needed. In some of the more extreme cases, that includes arriving on the moving assembly line just before it’s needed for addition to the growing product.
The hyperefficient auto supply chain symbolized by the words “just in time” is undergoing its biggest transformation in more than half a century, accelerated by the troubles car makers have suffered during the pandemic. After sudden swings in demand, freak weather, and a series of accidents, they are reassessing their basic assumption that they could always get the parts they needed when they needed them.
“The just-in-time model is designed for supply chain efficiencies and economies of scale,” said Ashwani Gupta, Nissan Motor Co’s chief operating officer. “The repercussions of an unprecedented crisis like Covid highlight the fragility of our supply-chain model.”
That’s true, and it’s also good that that fragility finally is being taken seriously.
There are two other factors in JIT supply chain fragility beside those largely innocent ones. One is the fact that an enormous amount of trade goods, including raw materials and components for assembly into larger components or finished products, passes through the South China Sea. A large majority of Japan’s inputs and trillions of dollars of value for the US pass through the that Sea. Those shipping lanes are at increasing risk from an increasingly aggressive and acquisitive People’s Republic of China.
The other source is supply chain disruption by union strikes. Strikes generally and supply disruption by strikes are ways in which unions extort concessions out of manufacturers.
Inventory on hand, rather than on trucks or rail cars, helps manufacturers get through those deliberate disruptions.