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Reports of Apple Designing and Producing a Concept Electric Car

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Business media including the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Apple was working on a secret research lab (not so secret anymore) possibly directed at developing a concept electric car.  According to these reports, under the code name “Project Titan” Apple has several hundred employees working at this research lab designing a concept vehicle that resembles a minivan.

Apple, of course, has declined comment to any of these publications.

According to the published WSJ report, the size of the project team and the senior executive hires are indications of seriousness, with Apple CEO Tim Cook approving the development project almost a year ago.  Once more, the report indicates that Apple executives have flown to Austria to meet with contract manufacturers.  The publication names the Magna Steyr unit of Canadian auto parts supplier Magna International as one potential party involved.

The report accurately notes that manufacturing an automobile is enormously expensive with a single plant costing upwards of well over $1 billion. Thus, it should be of little surprise that Apple might be investigating existing contract manufacturing options.

Auto supply chain teams know all too well that sourcing production in any particular country and transporting autos among global regions can be an expensive proposition without volume and market scale. It’s clearly not the same as shipping iPhones and iPads or for that fact, ramping-up new product and supply chain labor resources to coincide with a product development lifecycle. Once more, intellectual property (IP) protection becomes a larger consideration because of the nature of the multiple components and new technologies that may be involved. For electric powered vehicles, the design and production cost of the batteries is the single most important material and product margin component.

Another parallel that these reports bring forward is that if Apple becomes serious in pursuing this foray into electric cars, it will likely be a competitor to Tesla Motors, who has been pursuing a vertical integration strategy including the design and production of its own electric storage batteries for automotive and solar energy storage use. Tesla elected to invest in a former Toyota auto factory located in Fremont California.

Certainly, there will be continued speculation as to what Apple ultimately decides to do.  However, in the light of our previous Supply Chain Matters challenge to Apple to invest more in U.S. or North America based production, Project Titan could provide the opportunity to consider such an investment commitment, either contract manufacturing or owned manufacturing investment.  North America automotive production plants and their associated supply chains have proven world class competitiveness and indeed are exporting vehicles to global markets.

However, in light of our previous commentary noting excess auto production capacity across China, Apple may elect its familiar new product introduction and contract manufacturing model.

Bob Ferrari


Report of Automotive Production Overcapacity Across China

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Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that both domestic and foreign-based auto producers continue to build and subsequently bring online more auto production capacity across China. The report cites a projection that by 2017 there will be 140 auto production plants in China vs. the 123 existing at the end of 2014. The problem, however, is that China’s nationwide domestic auto consumption is far short of this capacity indicating that overcapacity is expected to worsen. Cited is an IHS Automotive chart indicating that China’s excess capacity has jumped 83 percent in the last two years. The article cites a JSC Automotive forecast that by 2017, auto plants across China will be able to produce 11.4 million more cars than are expected to be sold.

The report cites one Shanghai based consultant as indicating that some carmakers are regretting plans to expand plant capacities, but decisions have already been made. Once more, as Supply Chain Matters readers all well aware, China’s domestic market remains an open opportunity for future growth, but the continued battleground pits China’s domestic brands against foreign based nameplates. The obvious consequence is that there is not enough product demand to sustain all manufacturers, and that has the potential for industry consequences.

Production overcapacity is a common problem in China in many industry and commodity sectors and the results have been messy or sometimes ugly consequences. An ongoing overcapacity condition remains for the production of steel. According to Bloomberg, already, car dealerships across China are seeking more financial assistance and lower sales volume targets. China’s domestic consumers will obviously gain more buyer benefits over time.

Europe’s automotive industry has a similar overcapacity challenge since prior to the 2008-2009 global recession, there was already too much industry-wide capacity, and that remains an ongoing challenge.

With China and Europe reflecting overcapacity, global automotive OEM’s must continue efforts to balance global consumption and supply as well as protect margins. Currency headwinds are yet another challenge.

Supply Chain Matters would not at all be surprised by the entry of Chinese produced autos in the U.S. as well as other emerging markets over the next three years.

Bob Ferrari


Tesla Motors Operating Results Indicate Some Supply Chain Strains

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This week, Tesla Motors reported both fourth quarter and full 2014 financial operating results with indications of certain supply chain strains and perhaps growing pains.  Telsa Motors Model S

For the fourth quarter, the company’s loss widened to $108 million and reflected a shortfall in the delivery of 1400 vehicles along with described manufacturing inefficiencies related to the recently introduced Model S P85D as well as Autopilot functionality. Currency headwinds reflected by the current strong value of the U.S. dollar further weighted on earnings. The bulk of Tesla’s manufacturing supply chain is within the U.S.

Revenues in the quarter increased to nearly $957 million from $615 million recorded in the year earlier quarter.  The electric car company sold 9834 vehicles vs. 6892 in the year earlier quarter. Operating expenses nearly doubled.

During the fourth quarter, production increased to a record 11,627 vehicles, meeting its target to produce 35,000 vehicles in 2014. However, deliveries in the quarter amounted to 9834 vehicles. Tesla has adopted a rather industry-unique finished goods distribution model electing to take more end-customer orders directly online and delivering new cars direct to consumers, shunning the need for a vast dealer network. As a result, Tesla could not deliver 1400 vehicles because of challenges described as either customers being on-vacation, severe winter weather and termed shipping problems.  According to its 8K report, the 1400 vehicles have since been delivered in the current quarter, but weighed on revenues in Q4. Keep in mind that Tesla has invested in advanced technology to provide deeper visibility to overall delivery and customer fulfillment needs.

For the full year, Tesla recorded nearly $3.2 billion in revenues and an operating loss of $294 million, roughly three times the losses recorded for 2013. Inventories increased nearly $613 million. According to its SEC filing, about 55 percent of new Model S vehicles were delivered to North America customers while 30 percent were delivered in Europe and 15 percent were delivered to Asia Pacific customers. More vehicles were directed into Asia Pacific markets to support the initial year of deliveries for that region.

Looking toward 2015, Tesla faces a number of added supply chain challenges in order to support its global sales goal of 55,000 vehicles. A number of added investments in expanded manufacturing capacity are planned to increase production volume to 2000 vehicles per week by the end of 2015. Tesla entered 2015 with over 10,000 orders for its Model S and nearly 20,000 customer reservations for its new Model X, which is expected to begin customer deliveries in Q3 of this year. G&A expense growth is expected to be more modest with a particular emphasis on increased operational efficiency.

Added production capacity investments include a new state-of-the art automated casting and machining operation for various aluminum components and increased production volume investments to meet expected demand for All-Wheel Drive Dual Motor product demand. A new paint shop operation is further planned for combined painting of Model S and Model X models. Tesla additionally plans to further increase its sales and service resources in all existing markets including China.

One rather positive note is Tesla’s indication that steel fabrication is underway at the planned battery manufacturing Gigafactory near Reno Nevada.  That new facility, being constructed in partnership with major battery supplier Panasonic, is reported as on plan to begin equipment installation later in 2015 and battery production in 2016.

Thus while showing some supply chain strains at the end of 2014, even more challenges remain for Tesla’s supply chain in 2015. Tesla has often demonstrated the effective use of advanced technology applied to manufacturing and supply chain business processes, and 2015 will be no exception to that trend.

Bob Ferrari


U.S. Auto Exports Expand in 2014 and So Does Supply Chain Capabilities

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In late December of 2011, Supply Chain Matters raised awareness to Japan based automotive OEM’s, specifically Honda, with plans to shift a major portion of export production capability from North America instead of from Japan.  We have since updated readers on this strategy to include other automotive OEM’s. We did so because for our readers, it provides a valid example of a globally-balanced and flexible global manufacturing sourcing strategy along with proactive supply chain risk mitigation.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal featured a report on 2014 U.S. auto exports, one that confirms rather active evidence that North America auto production continues to be viewed for both domestic as well as global consumption.

The report indicates that U.S. auto exports in 2014 recoded a record for the third consecutive year. In 2014, approximately 2.1 million new cars and trucks were exported to other global regions, an 8 percent increase over that in 2013, according to the U.S. International Trade Association. According to the WSJ, about half of these exports are destined to Canada and Mexico with other countries of mention being China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Exported vehicles include brands such as BMW, Fiat-Chrysler, Daimler, Jeep, Ford, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. One cited example was the Jeep brand which shipped upwards of 316,000 of that maker’s Wrangler and Cherokee vehicles to export markets. A 50 percent increase from 2012 levels. BMW has plans to boost U.S. production of its X3 and other SUV line-up by 50 percent over the next two years.

The article further points out that while the U.S. dollar is currently strong, these exports efforts began when the dollar was weaker, and momentum has continued.

As we originally observed, the implication in these shifting manufacturing export trends is that U.S. automotive supply chains now cater to the product-unique needs and product demand strategies of certain export markets and there lies the importance of global product platform development strategies.  There is the added need to dynamically plan and respond to constantly changing and different geographic market scenarios. The U.S. automotive supply chain ecosystem therefore benefits and has the continued potential to be globally competitive in margins and consumer fulfillment. The U.S. automotive supply chain further serves as a backup strategy to any major supply chain disruption that might occur in another region.

Whether the growing export trend continues in 2015 is obviously dependent on shifting and highly changing currency trends.  However, the strategy and capabilities invested upwards of five years ago appear to be paying off.

Bob Ferrari


A Disappointing Announcement from Apple

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Supply Chain Matters has featured prior commentaries concerning GT Advanced Technologies a now defunct Apple supplier that incurred a sudden bankruptcy filing in the fall of last year. A series of new product focused events regarding the ramp-up volume production of an advanced form of sapphire glass led to the supplier’s decision to seek bankruptcy protection.

Included in this unfortunate series of events was a 1.3 million square foot production facility near Mesa Arizona that was slated by GT Technologies to be utilized for volume production. With the bankruptcy proceedings, Apple has now inherited this facility.

Supply Chain Matters has taken Apple somewhat to task, in not being more proactive and meaningful in its prior 2012 commitments to move more of its ongoing manufacturing efforts back to the United States. We have openly challenged Apple to make good on such a commitment as reflected in our commentary of July 2014. Apple CEO Tim Cook at the time indicated to NBC News that the non-availability of important required skills was the most significant factor in Apple’s consideration for shifting any higher volume production back to the U.S.

We were therefore again somewhat disappointed to read of the news that Apple now plans to invest $2 billion in the building of a command data center at the GT Technologies facility in Arizona.  According to business media reports, Apple expects to start construction in 2016, after GT Technologies clears out of the facility.  Upwards of 700 total manufacturing jobs are lost. The tradeoff will be 150 data center staff employed at what is sure to be a state-of-art lights out advanced data center. According to a prior report by The Wall Street Journal, the state of Arizona had previously provided $10 million in incentives to make way for the manufacturing facility.  Not so for the current re-use.

Now some readers may obviously challenge our viewpoint with the argument that Apple’s business model and ongoing obscene profitability is more about growing online services and electronic content distribution emanating from its millions of installed iPhones, iPads and Macs. Yes, that argument has meaning. But, Apple’s management team, under pressure from U.S. based consumers with increased awareness of holding global corporations accountable for their social responsibility and manufacturing sourcing practices, made that increased U.S. commitment to appease such concerns, albeit a couple of hundred million dollars in scope.

Thus, our disappointment is that a $2 billion investment could well have been applied to a state-of-the art manufacturing assembly facility or to supporting a component supplier’s efforts to source additional production in the U.S. Or, Apple could have elected to invest a significant sum in training and preparing U.S. based manufacturing talent.

When a company like Apple is deservedly ranked number one on nearly every researcher’s top supply chain listing, the ranking comes with a high bar of expectations.  We all expect Apple to set world class benchmarks in many supply chain capabilities including supplier and social responsibility as well as balanced sourcing of supplier and manufacturing capabilities.

Thus, we will not back off from our prodding of Apple.

As we declared in July: “There is no question that Apple has the financial resources and the public relations savvy to make a U.S. production and supply chain sourcing effort far more meaningful, impactful and visible.”

From our lens, the decision to re-purpose the Mesa Arizona facility was another opportunity lost to make good on a prior public commitment.

Then again, China and Asia based production affords Apple far more inherent flexibilities including increased margin pressures on suppliers while demanding the ultimate in scale-up and scale-down flexibilities.

When, if ever, will this consumer electronics giant increase its investment in U.S. production capability?

Readers weigh in- What’s your view?

Bob Ferrari


Evidence of a New Business and Supply Chain Headwind: A Stronger U.S. Dollar

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During this period of earnings announcements for the December-ending quarter, a new and significant headwind, the effects of the U.S. dollar, has appeared for industry supply chains with operations anchored in the United States.  That was significantly delivered to Wall Street by yesterday’s earnings announcement from Procter and Gamble, which currently has nearly two-thirds of its revenues coming from outside of the U.S. Procter and Gamble was not alone, even the likes of Apple encountered the same headwinds.

P&G reported a 31 percent drop in profit as the stronger U.S. dollar diluted the effects of a modest 2 percent organic sales growth. Net income dropped nearly a billion dollars from the year earlier quarter. According to business media reporting, foreign exchange pressures reduced net sales by 5 percentage points. Once more, P&G indicated that these currency effects will continue to be a drag within 2015, potentially cutting net earnings by 12 percent or in excess of another billion dollars.

The implications are obvious including a continued selloff of underperforming brands and businesses.  One published financial commentary report by The Wall Street Journal implied the continuance of “ruthless cost cutting” and a continued slim-down of brands. P&G has further undertaken ongoing efforts to source more production among emerging global regions, and those efforts are likely to accelerate in momentum.

The strong headwinds of currency were not just restricted to consumer product goods. Today’s WSJ reports that it is now evident that:

“The currency effects are hitting a wide swath of corporate America- from consumer products giant Procter and Gamble Co. to technology stalwart Microsoft Corp.  to pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc.. Those companies and others have expanded aggressively overseas in search of growth and now are finding that those sales are shrinking in value or not keeping-up with dollar-based costs.”

Further cited was a quote from the CEO of Caterpillar indicating: “The rising dollar will not be good for U.S. manufacturing or the U.S. economy.” The obvious fears for investors and economists alike is that the U.S. dollar’s explosive gains will backfire for U.S. based companies by reducing the price attractiveness of goods offered in foreign countries as well as reducing the value of foreign-based revenues.

The implications to U.S. centered industry supply chains are the needs for yet further shifting of strategies and resources. The existing momentum for U.S. manufacturing may well moderate with these latest developments. Initiatives directed at supporting increased top-line revenue growth now have the added challenges for more flexible, global-wide sourcing of production and distribution needs. Operations, procurement and product management teams that believed that they could get a breather from draconian and distracting cost-cutting directives will once again face the realities of having to cut deeply into domestic focused capabilities and resources.

We often cite the accelerated clock speed of business as a crucial indicator for agility and resiliency for industry supply chain strategy. Here is yet another example where perceptions of a  booming U.S. economy quickly change to the overall business and supply chain implications of the subsequent currency effects.

Bob Ferrari


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