In our streaming Supply Chain Matters commentaries related to Boeing’s supply chain efforts in commercial aircraft production, we have highlighted that the global aerospace provider has been re-negotiating its key commodity and specialty supplier agreements in an effort to reduce long-term costs.
Last week, Alcoa announced a multiyear aluminum supply with Boeing’s Commercial Airplane unit valued to be more than $1 billion. According to the announcement, the agreement makes Alcoa the sole supplier for wing skins on its metallic structure commercial aircraft, while aluminum plate products used in wing ribs or other structural aircraft components. The two parties indicate that they will continue to collaborate on developing newer, high-strength and corrosion resistant alloys including aluminum-lithium applications. This supply agreement represents nearly a 25 percent potential boost to Alcoa’s existing aerospace industry business unit. Details of the new supply agreement were not disclosed and thus how much Boeing was able to save remains an open question.
Earlier this year, Alcoa previously announced its intention to acquire United Kingdom based Fifth Rixson, a reported leader in aerospace jet engine components. The deal was reported to be approximately $2.9 billion.
In its reporting, The Wall Street Journal noted that Alcoa has been strategically targeting aerospace amid declining aluminum supplies amid a current glut in global aluminum supply, and a reduction of 1.2 metric tons of smelting capacity since 2007. Combined industry production cuts have enabled to boost raw aluminum prices to above $2000 per ton for the first time in 18 months.
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.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek published an article profiling General Electric’s efforts to get the company acting more like a 21st Century startup. Taking a cue from Silicon Valley’s start-up culture, GE recruited tech entrepreneur Eric Reis, author of the book The Lean Startup, to initiate the company-wide movement titled FastWorks.
Similar to Lean Six Sigma that fueled rallying and transformational efforts in the 1990’s, FastWorks is targeted to motivate GE employees to be more customer focused, speed new product development, reduce costs and improve customer engagement. The Reis philosophy is that faster product innovation is garnered from building imperfect early versions, gaining timely customer feedback, while continuously “pivoting” and adapting products to address market opportunities. The initiative is described by GE Chief Marketing Officer Beth Comstock as “giving employees the freedom to try things that may not prove successful: Fail fast, fail small.”
Easily stated, but with far different implications for a rather large, global based manufacturer.
According to Bloomberg, GE has already trained 40,000 employees in FastWorks. With more than 300 projects underway, the program is described as one of the largest initiatives in GE history. Early product development projects include a high-output gas turbine developed two years faster with 40 percent less cost than would traditional program management would have yielded. Other product initiatives cited were a light bulb with built-in wireless dimming chip, an oil well flow meter which launched after a year in development and is being commercialized in alliance with an energy company.
In the article, a Harvard Business School professor is quoted as observing that as large companies get bigger and scale, they tend to slow down because they have so many processes, systems and structures. Having worked at large and small companies on technology related projects, and having observed the enterprise and supply chain technology marketplace for over ten years, this author can well relate to the obstacles and bureaucratic inertia of large organizations. Most of the innovation in software has come from smaller, best-of-breed start-ups who were laser focused on customer and supply chain needs. That said, failing fast is quite different in a larger vs. a smaller organization. If the philosophy is an integral fabric of the organizational culture, than teams expect to incur failures, learn quickly and move on. In larger organizations there tends to be analysis paralysis as to why the failure.
Supply chain transformation initiatives take on similar characteristics. In a previous Supply Chain Matters commentary highlighting the Supply Chain Management Review article, Culture Eats Strategy, authors John D. Hanson and Steven A. Melnyk provide us reminders that organizational attempts for implementing strategies of radical innovation are often stymied by inherent organizational culture. That includes the spillover of efforts directed at a firm’s value-chain focused processes. If an organization was previously managing suppliers based on cost competitiveness, adding quicker product innovation implies a potential conflict in culture. The article reminds us that the management myth of showing teams a better way and they will embrace it is often de-railed by an inherent organizational culture that can, and often will, resist radical change unless old ways are discredited.
Similarly, many organizational transformational initiatives need to address inherent organizational culture, especially if it detracts from desired outcome objectives, whether they target innovation, efficiency or responsiveness. Is it any surprise that certain enterprise software vendors have embarked on an acquisition frenzy to secure product innovation?
In the case of GE, culture has always been addressed from the top, and down. The legacy of Jack Welch and the current leadership of Jeff Immelt each demonstrated personal passion toward changing organizational culture. FastWorks will no doubt include GE’s internal business groups but its value-chain suppliers as well.
The takeaway is regardless of what name and purpose an initiative takes on, it must incorporate strategy and organizational culture needs.
What’s your view?
Are large organizational transformational efforts another means to employ large numbers of teams, or is changing existing organizational culture the prime objective?
Many supply chain industry publications, forums, industry analysts and indeed Supply Chain Matters have made note of the discernable shift in production outsourcing strategies in favor of near-shoring strategies where production is located in proximity to large geographic markets.
Changing economics, the intent to protect valued intellectual property and the discovery of cheap and abundant forms of oil and natural gas have further fueled the continuing resurgence in U.S. and North American based manufacturing among many industry sectors. This trend is especially prevalent for small and medium-sized manufacturers who cannot afford to have elongated supply chains. The Wall Street Journal recently cited a statistic indicating that more than 80 percent of companies bringing work back to the U.S. have $200 million or less in revenue volumes.
If you have been reading reports reflecting companies within industries such as apparel, footwear or consumer electronics moving production operations from China back to the U.S., a challenge often cited is the lack of a reliable and industry competitive network of component or value-chain suppliers. That was understandable given the mass exodus of such suppliers when industries flocked to China to secure direct labor savings. Rebuilding industry focused world-class component suppliers will take additional time as well as other economic and business related factors.
However, our news alerts came across quantification of a significant new data point and trend that could hasten the maturity of lower-tier supply chain networks within the U.S.
The South China Morning Post published a report that indicates that China’s low-end manufacturers have also identified advantages for moving production operations from China to the United States and are moving operations at a quiet but aggressive pace. The report quotes a consultancy as indicating that in the two year span from 2011 to 2013, investment by Chinese manufacturers in operations within the U.S. grew from $400 million to $2 billion, while the number of U.S. based jobs provided by Chinese manufacturers nearly quadrupled. Obviously, if these numbers are accurate, they reflect a significant and noteworthy trend.
While China’s manufacturers will remain dominant in their home country, the fact that value-chain and component suppliers are practicing nearshoring of certain operations is an obvious reflection that U.S. component supply chain capability will indeed improve. OEM and brand manufacturers are obviously influencing their China based suppliers to assist in the effort.
Once more, U.S. based manufacturers or all sizes , if they have not done so already, will discover that Chinese competitors can, and are more than willing to implement their own near-shoring strategies to support specific global markets.
If readers can provide additional quantification of this trend within their specific industry sectors, please share them in Comments area or send them directly via email.