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Archive for the ‘Supply Chain’ Category

It doesn’t seem that there should be that much innovation in shipping. Man has plied the sea for ages, so can there be anything new under the sun? The answer is, yes, there can. And it is really, really big. The New York Times had an interesting article on the new Triple-E class of ships that A. P. Moeller-Maersk of Denmark has been bringing into service (Aboard a Cargo Colossus, Oct 3). These things are immensely huge — longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. This video gives an idea of just how large these ships are.

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Radio frequency identification (RFID) chips are small chips that can convey information to a reader even if the reader does not have a direct line of sight to the chip. If a veterinarian ever convinced you to put a chip in your dog just in case Fido wandered off, you have in your house. In the retail industry, RFID chips have long been held up as a godsend — the fast track to more accurate inventory records updated in real time. Or at least they were ten years or so ago. But since then there have been challenges with costs as well as the underlying technology. Now, however, it appears a major retailer, Zara, is taking the plunge into RFID in a big way (Zara Builds Its Business Around RFID, Wall Street Journal, Sep 16).

By the end of this year, more than 1,000 of the 2,000 Zara stores will have the technology, with the rollout completed by 2016, Mr. Isla said.

The scale and speed of the project is drawing notice in the industry. The Spanish retailer says it bought 500 million RFID chips ahead of the rollout, or one of every six that apparel makers are expected to use globally this year, according to U.K.-based research firm IDtechEX. …

One benefit was on display on a recent morning, when store manager Graciela Martín supervised inventory-taking at one of Zara’s biggest outlets in Madrid. The task previously tied up a team of 40 employees for five hours, she said. That morning she and nine other workers sailed through the job in half the time, moving from floor to floor and waving pistol-shaped scanning devices that beeped almost continuously while detecting radio signals from each rack of clothing.

Before the chips were introduced, employees had to scan barcodes one at a time, Ms. Martín said, and these storewide inventories were performed once every six months. Because the chips save time, Zara carries out the inventories every six weeks, getting a more accurate picture of what fashions are selling well and any styles that are languishing.

This all raises the question of whether there is any reason to believe that it will be different this time. That is, is there any reason to believe that Zara’s implementation of RFID will be more successful than other big retailers who have gone done this road? (more…)

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It’s been a long time since we’ve posted about the roll of allocation schemes in supply chains, but they remain one of my favorite topics. Allocation schemes involve a pretty simple issue: Suppose a supplier is selling to multiple retailers and at some point gets more orders than it has capacity to fulfill. How should the supplier dole out its limited capacity to its retailers? At one time or another, this has been relevant for high tech goods, luxury items and a number of other industries. But one place this almost always comes up is automobiles — newly released vehicles in particular. A hot new release is going to sell at its full sticker price (and maybe more) so allocating new cars is like passing out thousand dollar bills. So how should an automaker approach this problem?

Here is how Dodge is approaching this for its new Challenger SRT Hellcat — a muscle car with more horsepower than a Lamborghini (Dodge Challenger Hellcat dealer ordering begins — with a catch, Sep 9).

Dodge will base Hellcat dealer allocation on the total number of Dodge vehicles a dealer has sold within the last 180 days, including everything from Dart to Durango to Viper, brand head Tim Kuniskis said.

In December, a second allocation calculation will be made based on the previous 90-days’ sales performance, as well as a traditional 30-day inventory turn.

The dealer allocation for the Challenger Hellcat rewards the dealers “that are selling the Dodge brand,” Kuniskis said. “You sell a lot of Darts for me, Journeys for me, Durangos for me, I’m going to give you the rights to this one, too, because this is a halo of the brand.”

After the initial allocation, Dodge will also begin to measure the Hellcat’s days-on-lot and use it as a factor to determine the number of Challenger SRT Hellcats a dealer will get, Kuniskis said.

The longer a Hellcat sits without being sold — as it might if it were to have a $10,000 or $20,000 market adjustment on it — relative to those on other dealer lots, the fewer future Hellcat vehicles a dealer will receive, the Dodge brand boss explained.

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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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