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Posts Tagged ‘outsourcing’

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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“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.

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An interesting story from today’s Wall Street Journal (Companies Seek to Avoid China New Year Hangover, Feb 21). Basically, the Chinese New Year is complicating supply chain management.

For toymaker The Bridge Direct, Easter now begins in August.

That is when the Boca Raton, Fla., producer of Inkoos stuffed monsters and Justin Bieber dolls has to file orders with its Chinese suppliers to ensure delivery by the spring holiday. It used to place orders closer to the key selling period, which allowed it to get a sharper sense of demand and better manage its cash. But now the greater concern is making sure it doesn’t get left shorthanded because of China’s New Year holiday.

The company is one of many from the U.S. and other countries that are closely watching China as factory workers slowly return this week from the country’s long Lunar New Year holiday. Every year, millions of China’s 250 million migrant workers leave their factories and travel across the country to visit their families at home. The problem for toy and apparel makers in particular is that fewer and fewer workers are returning to the factories when the break is over.

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Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and current 3D printing cheerleader, has an intriguing piece in the New York Times (Mexico: The New China, Jan 27). it deals with his experience running 3D Robotics, a maker of civilian drone aircraft. 3D Robotics competes with firms that sourcing their production in China and hence they have had to find a way to take on competitors with low labor costs. Their answer? Tiajuna, Mexico. 3D is based in San Diego so engineering is done on the north side of the border but assembly is done on the south. Labor costs may higher than in China (but, as the article notes, the gap is closing as Chinese wages rise) but Anderson sees many advantages in his firm’s “quicksourcing” model that depends as much on speed as cheap hands.

First, a shorter supply chain means that a company can make things when it wants to, instead of solely when it has to. Strange as it may seem, many small manufacturers don’t have that option. When we started 3D, we produced everything in China and needed to order in units of thousands to get good pricing. That meant that we had to write big checks to make big batches of goods — money we wouldn’t see again until all those products sold, sometimes a year or more later. Now that we carry out our production locally, we’re able to make only what we need that week.

This point obviously depends on owning one’s own facility in Mexico or having a very tight relationship with the Mexican supplier. If a small buyer doesn’t have much negotiating power with a supplier it will still likely face large minimum purchase quantities when buying from Mexico. Still it is an interesting observation and suggests that some start ups may be making ill-advised trade offs between cost savings and flexibility. (more…)

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Apple, the world’s highest valued company, and its relationship, both competitive and cooperative, with Samsung provide a wonderful setting to discuss some fundamental questions that relate to strategy and operations:

FIRST: Which one is the more sustainable provider of Apple’s competitive advantage: design or the business model?

  • Daring Fireball’s John Gruber wrote three beautiful paragraphs to argue his view on what he termed “The New Apple Advantage“:

So let’s be lazy for a second here, and attribute all of Apple’s success over the past 15 years to two men: Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. We’ll give Jobs the credit for the adjectives beautiful, elegant, innovative, and fun. We’ll give Cook the credit for the adjectives affordable, reliable, available, and profitable. Jobs designs them, Cook makes them and sells them.

It’s the Jobs side of the equation that Apple’s rivals — phone, tablet, laptop, whatever — are able to copy. Thus the patents and the lawsuits. Design is copyable. But the Cook side of things — Apple’s economy of scale advantage — cannot be copied by any company with a complex product lineup. How could Dell, for example, possibly copy Apple’s operations when they currently classify “Design & Performance” and “Thin & Powerful” as separate laptop categories?

This realization sort of snuck up on me. I’ve always been interested in Apple’s products because of their superior design; the business side of the company was never of as much interest. But at this point, it seems clear to me that however superior Apple’s design is, it’s their business and operations strength — the Cook side of the equation — that is furthest ahead of their competition, and the more sustainable advantage. It cannot be copied without going through the same sort of decade-long process that Apple went through.

  • James Allworth, co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life?, adds an important dynamic component to the argument by applying Clay Christensen’s theory to this question:

The design part of Apple’s equation is to their ability to redefine new industries as they did with the iPhone. Whether they go after the TV market next, or something else, it’s this integrated design component that will be crucial to their initial success. But compared to the business side of Apple, design actually generates much less sustained strategic advantage in any one product category, once performance in that category becomes “good enough”. The tech industry has always revolved around copying. Once folks work out how it’s done, everyone piles on. And at that point, it becomes much less about design than it does about how you operate your business.

  • In summary: the answer to whether design or the operating model is the more sustainable competitive advantage is the typical MBA response to a tough question: “it depends.”  The rather sophisticated reasoning involves the fact that products and services over time improve and then become “good enough” and the dimension of competition shifts. Notice that I did not say that design is a commodity and fully copyable (my personal favorite question: why can’t Lexus designs have the timeless sophistication and elegance as Mercedes?); rather, another dimension overtakes it in importance.

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The cover of this month’s Atlantic proclaims Comeback Why the future of industry is in America. It features two articles (The Insourcing Boom and Mr. China Comes to America) on how companies are “insourcing,” moving production back from other parts of the globe (primarily China) to the States. They make some interesting points. The Insourcing Boom focuses on General Electric’s decision decision to repatriate a significant amount of its appliance manufacturing to Louisville, Kentucky. Before you dismiss this as a bit of window dressing to provide some political cover, you should know that Jeff Immelt and company are dropping $800 million to make this happen. I’m sure Mr. Immelt likes political cover and good press as much as the next CEO, but he didn’t get to be head of GE by spending nearly a billion dollars on a whim. They really believe that they can make this work.

The article points out several factors that have come to favor producing in the US.

At Appliance Park, this model of production—designed at home, produced abroad—had been standard for years. For the GeoSpring [water heater], it seemed both a victory and a vulnerability. The GeoSpring is an innovative product in a mature category—and offshore production, from the start, appeared to provide substantial cost savings. But making it in China also meant risking that it might be knocked off. And so in 2009, even as they were rolling it out, the folks at Appliance Park were doing the math on bringing it home.

Even then, changes in the global economy were coming into focus that made this more than just an exercise—changes that have continued to this day.

  • Oil prices are three times what they were in 2000, making cargo-ship fuel much more expensive now than it was then.
  • The natural-gas boom in the U.S. has dramatically lowered the cost for running something as energy-intensive as a factory here at home. (Natural gas now costs four times as much in Asia as it does in the U.S.)
  • In dollars, wages in China are some five times what they were in 2000—and they are expected to keep rising 18 percent a year.
  • American unions are changing their priorities. Appliance Park’s union was so fractious in the ’70s and ’80s that the place was known as “Strike City.” That same union agreed to a two-tier wage scale in 2005—and today, 70 percent of the jobs there are on the lower tier, which starts at just over $13.50 an hour, almost $8 less than what the starting wage used to be.
  • U.S. labor productivity has continued its long march upward, meaning that labor costs have become a smaller and smaller proportion of the total cost of finished goods. You simply can’t save much money chasing wages anymore.

That’s a compelling list but all in one or another come around to saying that the US is cheaper (or China is more expensive) than you would have thought. But the article also makes the case that there are further benefits.  (more…)

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We have had a few posts about the reported poor working conditions in e-commerce fulfillment centers (see here and here). Now The Guardian has an article describing similar issues in distribution centers for bricks-and-mortar retailers (‘They shout at you and harass you': how workers toil at Walmart’s US suppliers, Jul 25). Many of the complaints are similar to those heard about fulfillment centers: unrealistic quotas, poor pay and benefits, and a general disregard for worker safety. And, as with some of the earlier reports, these are being publicized by organizations tied to unions.

For my money, the most interesting part of the article is its characterization of the Wal-Mart’s supply chain in California’s Inland Empire.

While much recent attention has focused on abuses at the outsourced Chinese supply chains of companies like Apple, some experts believe Walmart’s US-based supply chain is built on a similar model, but one constructed within America US itself.

As is common in China, the supply chain is marked by layers upon layers of subcontracting. So, while every single box packed and unpacked at NFI Crossdock is destined for Walmart, the warehouse is owned, run and staffed by myriad other companies. The supply model has been dubbed “insourcing”, and experts say it is defined by ruthless cost-cutting as each layer of subcontracting seeks to eke out a profit margin.

“Walmart’s suppliers run out of places to squeeze out the costs, and they are left with the workers,” said Catherine Ruckelshaus, co-author of a recent report on the supply chain called Chain of Greed, that was produced by the National Employment Law Project.

Walmart is not the only big-box retailer supplied by the huge warehouses of the Inland Empire. Other major firms, such as K-Mart, Home Depot and Toyota, also work there. But Walmart sets the model for the others by its sheer size.

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