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Archive for the ‘Supply Chain’ Category

Here is an interesting factoid for you: 24% of all the vehicles manufactured right now are built on just ten platforms. What’s more, by the end of the decade that number is expected to grow to 30%. The number comes from an Automotive News article that looks at some of the consequences of the trend (With the push for standard parts, quality is key, Aug 6).

First, why automakers are trying to move in this direction is clear. Being able to build multiple model off one basic platform saves a ton of money in product development as well as tooling and build manufacturing facilities. Further, they benefit from a bit of risk pooling; if one model is not selling particularly well, that may be offset by another that can be built at the same plant. Thus, even if a model slumps, all that expensive capacity is till being used. (See this post from last fall on how Ford is cutting its number of platforms from 15 to 9.) Globalization also plays a part in this. What kinds of vehicles sell well might vary across different continents, but if European, Asian and North American models can all be built on the same platforms, manufacturers with a global footprint can be ever more cost competitive.

But what about suppliers? With purchased components making up a significant chunk of the cost of a vehicle, car makers would like standardization there. In a perfect world, you would have the same break system on every model built on a platform, but that brings challenges.

“The requirement that we face is clearly to develop products from the outset in such a way that they can be used in all the platform derivatives without the expense of making changes,” said Sabine Woytowicz, regional quality director at Valeo in Germany.

But with mass standardization, a part with a quality problem can now be supplied to millions of vehicles. That puts a premium on quality. …

Martin Thier, director of corporate quality management at the Mahle Group, said: “When obtaining an order, we check its feasibility for both product development and manufacturing even more closely.”

It comes down to “knowing precisely what you do, what you can do and how good you are at it.”

For example, he said, there is now a more intense interest in investigating how an inconsequential error in one part would produce an effect in a different component.

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I have never really given T.J. Maxx much thought. I can’t recall the last time I was in one of their stores, and going to T.J. Maxx has not been an obvious choice to me since I was in high school (and that tells you more about the shopping options in Manchester, NH, in the early 80’s than anything else). But now Fortune has an article singing the praises of T.J. Maxx — or more accurate its parent company TJX, which also owns Marshalls among other retail chains (Is T.J. Maxx the best retail store in the land?, Jul 24). The article is full of all sorts of interesting nuggets (TJX is basically the successor company of Zayre, another retailer from my childhood, who knew?!) as well as laying out seven “secrets” from the company playbook. Some of these are about positioning in the eyes of the customer (e.g., Put real treasure in the treasure hunt) or management talent (Find a CEO who gets retail). But many of their points go right to the stores operations and how it manages its supply chain.

The off-price business is a volume game: selling a ton of goods and selling them fast. The measure of speed here is how quickly a company turns over its inventory: TJX does that every 55 days, vs. 85 for its peer group, according to Morningstar. Indeed, the company is structured to whisk items through its distribution centers and stores—and a lot of items they are: TJX shipped some 2 billion units to its stores in its 2014 fiscal year (which ended on Feb. 1), up from 1.6 billion in fiscal 2010.

Former employees say that the stuff moves so rapidly that merchandise is often sold before TJX has paid its vendors for it. The busiest stores can take daily delivery of product, which employees put out on the floor right away—a “door to floor” approach that cuts down on the amount of space needed for backroom storage. Sources say items typically go on markdown if the turn rate is slower than about seven weeks, which also contributes to the rapid flow.

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Have you ever thought about pallets? You know, those wood contraptions that can hold a pile of stuff off the floor while letting a forklift easily scoop up said pile? Here’s a snapshot of one that just happened to be lying around the Northwestern campus.

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So in many ways, there is nothing particularly special about pallets except that they play a key role in logistics and supply chains. They basically make schlepping stuff modular. What is actually stacked on the pallet doesn’t matter; a guy with a forklift can just pick it up and put it on or take it off a truck. Which is not to say that pallets are uninteresting. The people at Planet Money did a whole episode on pallets (Episode 545: The Blue Pallet, Jun 11) that makes for great listening. Here, check it out:

The key point is that there has in fact been innovation in the pallet market. What you see above is your basic stringer pallet. It consists of 15 pieces of wood and a bunch of nails. Note that with those three pieces of wood sandwiched between the other twelve, a forklift can only pick it up from two sides — either the front or back in the picture above. The alternative is to have a block pallet. A block pallet replaces that those three pieces of wood with nine blocks. Those blocks give extra spacing on the other two sides and a forklift can hoist the thing from any side. That additional flexibility increases efficiency. Go to a Costco. They have essentially mandated all their suppliers send stuff on block pallets. If you unload as many tractor trailers as Costco does, the productivity boost from block pallets really adds up. (more…)

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Reshoring — moving manufacturing from far-flung global locations back to the US — has been a popular topic both in the general press and on this blog. What’s not to like about it? As long as manufacturing allows average humans without extreme degrees of education or super rare skills to make a decent wage, new employment opportunities in manufacturing are always going to create a buzz.

But just what kind of firms are bringing work back to the States? According to the Wall Street Journal, we are mostly talking about smaller enterprises (Bringing Jobs Back to U.S. Is Bruising Task, Jun 25).

More than 80% of companies bringing work back to the U.S. have $200 million or less in sales, according to the Reshoring Initiative, a nonprofit that encourages companies to return production to the U.S. Many supply parts to bigger companies or, if they sell directly to consumers, are seeking to cut out lengthy supply chains from Asia.

But big companies have the resources and experience to hopscotch around the globe. It’s harder and riskier for small firms to do the same.

So for every General Electric moving appliance manufacturing back to Kentucky, you have lots of firms like Chesapeake Bay Candle dealing with much smaller product lines. To some extent this is not too surprising. Whether you are GE or Chesapeake Bay Candle, managing a long supply chain or navigating cultural differences is nontrivial. One of those firms, however, can much more easily absorb the cost of having in country staff or can resort to throwing around its sizable weight to get a good deal. Further, a multinational like GE can also have ambitions of growing in China that may not be a priority for a small player like Chesapeake Bay Candle.

While it is not surprising that smaller firms play a big role in reshoring, that is also a problem.  (more…)

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Wearable computing is often talked up as the next big thing. So how hard can it be to build a smart watch? Pebble, an independent (i.e., not owned by an existing tech company) competitor had some significant delays as it moved from Kickstarter campaign to actual product. It essentially underestimated complications of sourcing materials and getting things built. But it doesn’t have to be so hard (Shanzhai: China’s Collaborative Electronics Design Ecosystem, The Atlantic, May 18).

A different story emerges in the burgeoning wearable electronics market of Southern China, one that is based on a rapid, flexible and open ecosystem called shanzhai 山寨.

Take, World Peace Industrial (WPI), a Taiwanese electronic sourcing company located in Shenzhen, as an example. The company’s application technology unit (ATU) spends millions annually to develop reference circuit boards, called gongban 公板 (“public board”). A gongban can be used by a variety of different companies, who either incorporate it in their products directly or build atop it as they please via modifications. ATU develops 130 gongbans annually in areas ranging from smart phones, tablets, smart watches, smart homes, and industrial controls—and distributes the designs for free. WPI then makes money by trading in the boards’ components.

“We call this shanzhai in Shenzhen. It’s a mass production artwork,” explains Lawrence Lin head of the Application Technology Unit at WPI. Thirty some companies in Shenzhen are shipping their own smart watches with gongban from ATU and gongmo (‘public case’) sourced from the massive shanzhai ecosystem, which consists of tens of thousands of companies that manufacture and distribute goods. …

In the emerging area of smart watches, WPI and other solution houses create gongban, which provide common electronic functions including Bluetooth connectivity to mobile phones, and sensors to measure the wearers’ movement, as well as monitor heart rate and other vital bodily statistics. These gongban are designed to fit into a variety of gongmo that are ready to be branded on order. The flexibility to mix and match gongban and gongmo enable companies to quickly put together their own smart watches with customized functions and styles for various niche markets. Today, customers of WPI ship close to 100,000 smart watches per month.

What do a gongban and a gongmo look like? Take a gander:

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When you thing of the auto industry, you likely focus on big players like Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Mercedes. Names like Magna International and Denso may not mean a whole lot to you. But you should know those names. They likely make more of your car than you realize. “Mega suppliers” like Magna and Denso have been growing for years and in the process have been sifting the balance of power in the industry (Age of mega supplier heralds danger for carmakers, Financial Times, May 18).

There are now 16 major car manufacturers that sell more than 1m vehicles a year. But those cars are built from parts supplied by just 10 major component makers – meaning that under the individually styled bodywork, cars are sharing more parts.

Whether a driver chooses to buy a BMW, an Audi or a Mercedes-Benz five-door saloon, the chances are high that the anti-lock brakes will be built by Continental, the battery will come from Johnson Controls, and Denso will have provided the exhaust

Bosch, the world’s largest automotive supplier by revenue, reckons that at least one of its parts is built into almost every new car sold anywhere in the world – regardless of brand, market, price point or geography.

The article goes on to note that the top ten suppliers capture 60% of the revenue generated by the top 100 suppliers.

Given this situation, two questions seem relevant. First, how did automakers find themselves in this situation? Second, what are the implications for how the industry functions? (more…)

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Shop on Amazon.com and you will find a lot of items sold by lots of different sellers. For many of those sellers, Amazon isn’t just handling acting as a store front; it is also handling the logistics of order fulfillment. Now suppose that Amazon has a particular product which both it and several third parties are selling out its warehouses. How should Amazon physically manage the inventory? Should it keep the inventory it is selling physically separate from that offered by third-party sellers? In many instances, Amazon chooses to do just the opposite, allowing for “stickerless, commingled inventory.” Here is an Amazon video explaining just what that means.

And here is how the Wall Street Journal explains the benefits of the program (Do You Know What’s Going in Your Amazon Shopping Cart?, May 11).

The system has enabled Amazon to make better use of its warehouse space and keep a wide variety of items in stock around the country. The idea is to give Amazon flexibility to ship certain products based on their proximity to customers, speeding delivery times. For third-party sellers, it saves them the trouble of having to label individual items sent to the Amazon warehouse.

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What should determine how much it costs to ship a box? Clearly the weight of the package matters as does the distance it travels. But what about its physical dimensions? Does it matter whether a one-pound object takes up a cubic foot of space or two cubic feet?

Apparently, FedEx thinks it matters and has announced that it will be tweaking its pricing policies accordingly (Web Shoppers Beware: FedEx to Charge by Package Size, Wall Street Journal, May 7).

Instead of charging by weight alone, all ground packages will now be priced according to size. In effect, that will mean a price increase on more than a third of its U.S. ground shipments. …

[The change] would likely greatly affect bulky but lighter weight items like toilet paper and diapers, which many people have delivered on a regular basis, as well as Zappos.com shoes, which ship for free, including free returns. Indeed, shoe shoppers are encouraged to buy multiple pairs, keep what fits and return the rest. Avid Web shoppers do the same with sweaters, dresses, and jackets at retailers like J. Crew, Banana Republic, and Macy’s.

This graphic gives an idea of the kind of price increases that are in play. Clearly items that are not very dense are going to be seeing a stiff price hike.

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The buzz in e-commerce has been all about speed. Firms from A to Z (or at least from Amazon to WalMart) have been trying to wring time from their distribution systems. Indeed, just yesterday Google announced it was expanding its Shopping Express same day delivery service. So what are we to make of Zulily, an e-tailer that routinely takes its sweet time to ship stuff?

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For those unfamiliar with the firm, the Wall Street Journal describe it as a “mom-focused discount site” (Zulily Customers Play the Waiting Game, May 5). Like Gilt or Rue La La, Zulily operates on a private sales model with goods being offered at a discount for a limited times to members only. The interesting thing is that their suspect shipping times actually seem to be a conscious, strategic choice. (more…)

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The last mile has long been the bugaboo of e-commerce. Getting stuff from a fulfillment center to a metropolitan area is relatively easy in comparison to putting a box on a particular doorstep. The former allows for scale and efficiency; the latter is necessarily at a smaller scale and requires coordinating lots of little details.

Now we have two stories on how Amazon is dealing with that tricky last stretch — one from the US and one from India. First up is Amazon’s effort to develop its own delivery capability in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York (Amazon, in Threat to UPS, Tries Its Own Deliveries, Wall Street Journal, Apr 24).

The new delivery efforts will get Amazon closer to a holy grail of e-commerce: Delivering goods the same day they are purchased, offering shoppers one less reason to go to physical stores. With its own trucks, Amazon could offer deliveries late at night, or at more specific times.

The move is a shot across the bow of United Parcel Service Inc., FedEx Corp. and the U.S. Postal Service, which now deliver the majority of Amazon packages. It is also a challenge to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., eBay Inc. and Google Inc., each of which is testing deliveries.

Ultimately, a delivery network could transform Amazon from an online retailer into a full-service logistics company that delivers packages for others, according to former Amazon executives. They caution that any such effort likely is years away.

So why should Amazon want to get into the business of schlepping stuff when there are multiple quite competent firms willing to do the heavy lifting for them?

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