“Where does that come from?” sounds like an easy question to answer and at a high level it is. Which car models are produced at which plants is public knowledge so whether your Toyota was built in Kentucky or Alabama is easiest enough to figure out. But if you want to take it to another level — to know where different components came from and where the stuff that goes into the components comes from — is a lot harder. That is the conclusion reached in a blog post on Nautilus (The Secret Life of Everything: Where Your Stuff Comes From, Oct 29). Modern, global supply chains are so far reaching and support so much complexity that transparency (at least to the outside world) is lost.
I’d thought of [supply chains] mostly in terms of delivering Amazon orders and keeping Staples stocked. Those are just endpoints, the final few steps of a waiter carrying a meal on a tray. And what I really didn’t get was that supply chains don’t just carry components and ingredients, but synchronize their movements. Shipping a box of pens to Staples is the obvious part. Coordinating the arrival of barrels, caps, boxes, ink cartridges, and nibs (through which ink flows) at the pen factory—and also metal to the nib factory, oil to the plastics-maker, and so on—is the bulk of what supply chains do, and in the most efficient manner possible, with algorithms optimizing everything from shipping networks to the path of pallets through warehouses, with an eye to what happens when one of these many moving parts goes invariably astray.
The problem then is that unless you pick a real simple product — like a T-shirt — it is pretty much impossible to know where all the components come from and where all the various production steps are executed. NPR’s Planet Money took on this challenge of tracking a T-shirt from cotton field through production and shipping to the disposition of used American clothes in Africa. It’s an eye-opening picture of global supply chains.