At Supply Chain Matters, we relish when elements of the Wall Street community recognize the critical link of supply chain performance and responsiveness with supporting positive product brand and business outcomes. Thus we were attracted to this week’s posting by Motley Fool concerning what is often rated as the number one supply chain: Is Apple’s Supply Chain a Risk to the Company?
The overall concerns raised in this commentary should not be new news to our community, especially those that often follow Supply Chain Matters. The commentary observes that the supply chain is more difficult than it appears (really!), even though the definition of what is incorporated in supply chain is somewhat simplistic. More importantly is this commentary’s linkage of a corporate culture that is product innovation driven, and how that impacts supply chain responsiveness.
We have brought forward that dimension in many of our Apple supply chain commentaries, the most frequent addressing how last-minute product design changes on the pending iPhone 6 impacted ramp-up production schedules or the current aggressive plan to introduce a new 12.9 inch iPad in Q1 .
A somewhat novel aspect to this commentary is calling attention to the fact that Apple CEO Tim Cook, having come from a background in supply chain, should have been aware of supply chain risks. Our response is: Of course he is aware, and he, in-turn has obvious high expectations in his supply chain partner network to rise to challenge, as they have before.
There is speculation among Wall Street investors as to the scope and breadth Apple’s pending product announcements scheduled next week, along with the market availability of these products in the upcoming holiday focused quarter. In its conclusion, the Motley Fool commentary kind of throws supply chain ‘under the bus’:
“As Apple continues to bring new and exciting technologies to its products, at times there will be delays in both supply and manufacturing processes. In addition, Apple’s going to take its time bringing a cohesive, end-user-focused, product to market. It isn’t always fast, but it’s worth waiting for.”
Supply Chain Matters and many of our community would most likely have a different perspective. A supply chain supporting innovative products as its prime business outcome must be designed to support agility, flexibility and responsiveness to constant product changes and new product introduction cycles. It is not a supply chain driven solely by lowest cost dimensions, but rather scale and responsiveness dimensions.
The good news is that once in a while, Wall Street can appreciate supply chain capability, even as some activist investors constantly strive to destroy years of investment and resources in supply chain capability.
Supply Chain Matters has featured many ongoing commentaries regarding electric powered automotive manufacturer Tesla Motors and its bold “gigafactory” strategic supply strategy. Our last commentary published in mid-August on this topic reflected on the high frenzy of lobbying and proposed incentives among various U.S. states to be designated as the designated site for this massive factory, but the betting for the final site was leaning heavily towards a particular site, that being Nevada.
This afternoon, the formal announcement regarding the chosen site for this massive $5 billion supply facility will be made but business and general media has already running stories concerning disclosed the site, which is an industrial complex near Reno Nevada.
Let’s re-visit the four strategic objectives outlined in our mid-August commentary in light of today’s expected announcement:
Bold supply chain vertical integration
As more information comes to light, there is no doubt in the lens of Supply Chain Matters that Tesla has elected a bold vertical integration strategy. The massive scale of this facility is targeted at reducing the unit costs of lithium-ion batteries by 30 percent. Current reports now cite the statistic that at total capacity, capable of supplying up to 500,000 electric vehicles per year, the plant capacity exceeds than all of the entire automotive industry’s current lithium-ion battery supply needs. However, other information now coming to light indicates that Tesla’s supply strategy extends beyond current automotive industry needs, and could include electric storage needs for public utility, alternative energy or other industry needs.
There are new reports that the Nevada site selection has considerations for being powered by solar, wind and/or geothermal energy methods. as well as being a potential supplier of electrical storage to Las Vegas casinos and entertainment complexes.
Proximity to key commodity supply and transport networks
The site itself is rather close to supplies of the all-important raw material of lithium supply. A report posted on SiliconValley.com observes that Rockwood Lithium, the only operating bulk lithium supplier in the United States could easily supply needed raw material. The sire itself, to be located within the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center is approximately a four hour drive from Tesla’s primary Fremont assembly facility, and does provide for rail services.
A well trained and technically savvy workforce
Currently, Nevada has one of the highest unemployment rates in the United States. No doubt, the State of Nevada probably included workforce training incentives to staff the new facility. This facility is expected to be highly automated, but previous estimates pegged overall employment at 6500 at full capacity.
Subsidies that may well defray the overall cost burden.
In its reporting of the Tesla Nevada site selection, the Wall Street Journal noted: “Nevada likely offered Tesla one of the largest incentive packages in the history of the U.S. automotive industry.” Reports reinforce Tesla’s prior statements indicating expectations that the designated states would defray upwards of $500 million of this facility’s total $5 billion costs. The Governor of Nevada is expected to convene a special session of that state’s legislature to finalize details of the overall incentives package. We’ll know in the coming days the details of such subsidies, but as noted above, early indicators point to a substantial package.
Tesla is a company whose boldness extends across its entire value-chain. Today’s announcement of Reno Nevada as the site as one of the largest single factories ever constructed in the United States is a testament to such boldness and initiative. The race to a 2017 volume production now begins.
In mid-July, business and social media was abuzz with the announcement that two long-time rivals, Apple and IBM, would team-up in an alliance to create business apps leveraging Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices. Under the alliance, IBM will create what it terms as “simple” business productivity apps leveraging the respective Apple mobile devices.
Today, Bloomberg released some somewhat stunning news which many are speculating is directly related to above announcement. Supplier sources informed Bloomberg that Apple is preparing to manufacture the largest model iPad ever, a 12.9 inch screen device, with production scheduled to commence in the first quarter of 2015. That is 6-9 months from today.
As we have echoed in previous Supply Chain Matters commentaries, the Apple supplier network is feverishly ramping-up production volumes for new models of iPhones and iPads for the all-important upcoming holiday buying surge period. Apple’s three key suppliers of LCD screens are especially challenged due to a rather late design change incurred on the new iPhone 6 model.
According to the Bloomberg report, this rather large iPad screen model is being positioned to compete in the business applications arena as an alternative device for business tasks currently performed by laptops. The Q1 timing is especially noteworthy since that is the time when Apple’s China based suppliers and contract manufacturers temporarily shut-down for celebration of the Lunar New Year as workers return to their homes and families. It is a period where suppliers recover from the hectic end-of-year scramble. The fact that Apple is targeting yet another product release in this period is a probable sign that the IBM-Apple discussions were already in the planning stages prior to the official announcement last month. Both parties are aggressively planning to take advantage of the alliance opportunities.
Apple’s supply chain, S&OP teams and value-chain partners are once again going to be put to the test of simultaneous volume production ramp-ups involving a multitude of products including a new iWatch as well as phones and tablets. There is obviously little room for snafu’s and LCD screen suppliers may well be the critical linchpin to pull-off a series of simultaneous successful product launches.
Supply Chain Matters has featured previous commentaries reinforcing the critical dependence of product design and new product introduction (NPI) with supply chain network decision-making. We now have another real-world reminder of the challenge that many high tech and consumer products focused supply chains continually encounter in the constant dependency and alignment of NPI decisions with the external supply chain network.
Reuters, in an exclusive report, indicates that LCD suppliers for the pending Apple iPhone 6 product NPI launch have been scrambling to scale volume production, after a late product re-design disrupted supplier production plans. The Reuters report cites two supply chain sources as indicating that the backlight design of the LCD panel was supposed to feature a single layer instead of the standard two-layers of film. Apparently the new design was not bright enough to meet Apple’s product management expectations and was sent back to design to fit in the extra layer. That step is reported as “costing precious time and temporarily idling some screen assembly operations.”
While Reuters indicates that out is now back on track, suppliers Japan Display, LG Display and Sharp are working flat-out to make-up the lost time.
As noted in many prior reports, Apple is a task master in incorporating constant changes in product design up to the last minute. This culture stems from the passion of Steve Jobs and his relentless pursuit of product perfection. However, Apple’s value-chain ecosystem and production volume requirements are far larger in scope.
An engineering or product-driven culture can certainly be an important factor in delighting customers. However, when such design changes occur in a highly outsourced supplier network involved in the critical phase leading up to new product production ramp-up, information and assessment related to the implications of such product design changes is equally important. Apple has a unique culture, and the firm’s suppliers are well aware that the ability to scramble at the very last moment is an expected and required capability.
Dynamic tension among product design and supply chain teams is a normal occurrence. This latest takeaway for our community is that even one of the top-rated supply chains has its own challenges in synchronizing product design disruption in critical new product ramp-up phases. It is yet another reminder of the critical importance for taking a broader supply chain business network perspective in information integration, assessment and decision-making.
The bulk of Apple’s component supplier and contract manufacturing partners reside in China and Asia where many high tech electronics products are produced. Unfortunately, this is an area that continues to deal with high levels of industrial pollution, worker safety and industrial accidents.
Apple is now taking meaningful steps to initiate substance regulations across its supplier network.
According to a recent posting appearing on Apple Insider, the company is banning the use of cleaning agents’ benzene and n-hexane within supplier factories. This moves is part of Apple published Regulated Substances Specification which has recently been made available for open viewing. The purpose of this specification reads in-part:
“We require our suppliers to adhere to this Regulated Substances Specification, which describes Apple’s global restrictions on the use of certain chemical substances or materials in our products, accessories, manufacturing processes, and packaging used for shipping products to Apple’s customers.”
Apple’s vice-president of Environmental Initiatives has additionally published a letter regarding the company’s stance on safe working environments. Apple further intends to establish a new advisory board made up of chemical and pollution prevention experts who are tasked with finding additional ways to minimize or eliminate the use of toxins across Apple’s supplier network.
These moves come after activist groups submitted petitions calling for the company to place a ban on dangerous substances.
The fact that one of the top rated global supply chains has taken this proactive stance regarding supply chain safety and environmental responsibility is quite meaningful. Hopefully it will be an impetus for more high tech and consumer electronics brand owners to join in citing higher standards for safe chemical use.
This is a follow-up commentary related to Tesla Motors, specifically this electric powered automotive manufacturer’s efforts in supply in deploying a broader supply chain vertical integration strategy. In our Supply Chain Matters commentary in February, we noted Tesla’s announcement to build its own $5 billion electric battery supply facility which is termed the “gigafactory”, capable of supplying up to 500,000 electric vehicles per year. That level of supply commitment exceeds Tesla’s current planned output and implies providing a U.S. based manufacturing presence for electric batteries that would be available to other automotive and vehicle producers. Tesla currently supplies batteries for the ToyotaRAV4 EV and the Mercedes B-Class electric.
We noted that the strategy savvy, given that when one reflects on the entire value-chain and cost-of-goods sold (COGS) for an electric Tesla Motors Model S powered automobile, the batteries are indeed the highest portion of material cost. Tesla expects that the new factory would reduce its current battery costs by 30 percent in its first year,
In late July, during its second-quarter earnings report, Tesla executives made a side announcement indicating that the company had reached a final agreement with Panasonic Corp. as the supplier partner in the construction and operation of the planned gigafactory. Five western U.S. states continue to be cited as potential sites for either one or two linked supply facilities, although site work has actually begun in an area near Reno Nevada. Other potential U.S. states in the running are Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. The western portion of the U.S. is an obvious choice because of its proximity to the supply of lithium carbonate, a key raw material for lithium-ion batteries.
Journalist Michelle Quinn pens in a report posted by the San Jose Mercury News that the potential for landing this new battery factory with upwards of 6500 manufacturing continues to fuel a massive wooing and lobbying effort among each of the potential states. State legislatures are rushing through incentive packages to sweeten prospects in their individual states and Governors and city mayors have resorted to novel efforts in demonstrating enthusiasm and keen interest. One example, Texas Governor Rick Perry drove a Tesla Model S to California and taunted California officials about the overwhelming advantages of locating manufacturing in the Lone Star State. Quinn describes these lobbying efforts as a ‘beauty pageant” and: “if a song and dance could help (California), let’s do it.”
Readers should recall that Boeing launched a nationwide RFP bidding effort among potential U.S. states for selection of component and final assembly facilities for its new announced 777x commercial aircraft program. In our January posting, Collaboration According to Boeing, we noted that Boeing’s ultimate objective was to secure the most lucrative economic incentives related to production sourcing. Boeing was in-essence conducting a reverse auction, seeking the lowest economic bidder. In the end, a package of incentives described as the largest of its kind in U.S. history assured that new generation 777 production would remain in the OEM’s current Seattle area.
One of the learnings from the deep economic recession of 2008-2009 is that state, local and provincial governments will do all that is required to secure needed jobs and an economic future in times of uncertain economic growth. If that requires massive incentives in tax breaks, site location subsidies, workforce training and infrastructure developments, so be it. Current efforts among local and state governments to top one another only adds to the reality that manufacturers can hold out for the sweetest deal available with lucrative benefits. Appearances, stunts and lobbying add more leveraging power for the manufacturer.
In the specific case of Tesla, a company well known for its innovative and bold thinking. When the company announced that it would manufacture autos in California, many auto industry observers scoffed at that decision. California is not known as a low-cost manufacturing region.
The ultimate selection of its U.S. based battery gigafactory will accomplish four objectives:
- Bold supply chain vertical integration
- Proximity to key commodity supply and transport networks
- A well trained and technically savvy workforce
- Subsidies that may well defray the overall cost burden.
At this point, Tesla has more than likely honed its selection list based on the above objectives. The thinking is bold and timing is exquisite. It’s time to move beyond the politics and to the objective at-hand.