Geography and the American Supply Chain

My wife, who spends her days as a successful commercial real estate broker, turned me onto this one.  It’s a terrific op-ed piece by a guy named James A. Cooke, the editor of Supply Chain Quarterly, in which he details how technology may just fundamentally change the geographic makeup of this country’s – if not the entire world’s – supply chain.  It’s a great piece, and offers more than a few kernels for thought for us in the manufacturing community. I urge you to read it in its entirety here

But Mr. Cooke got me to thinking on a number of questions.  Will technology, indeed, change not only the how and maybe even the when, but the where of how small shops like mine conduct our business?  Will small and relatively lean manufacturers like me, in other words, still be compelled to operate near large population centers if many of the functions we perform in our factories and shops are no longer done by people, but by automated pieces of machinery? 

And what does it mean to us if the skill sets we seek in our workforce are no longer tied to the making of the products we produce, but tied to the maintenance of the machines and robotics we use to produce them, and to the vehicles and methods we use to move them?

What’s more, what will radical technologies like 3D printing mean to age-old industrial considerations like inventory, raw materials, shipping, design, prototyping, production minimums, ordering and order processing?  And what will changes in how we do such things impact not only our day to day operations, but how we envision our plants and how we relate to our sets of current, new and potential customers?

Look, I don’t have all the answers.  I wish I did.  And I doubt anyone reading this does either.  But if you’re in manufacturing, and you own a shop, manage one, or even work in one, you owe it to yourself to at least ask these questions, if only for starters. 

But more important than that, you owe it to yourself to anticipate whatever changes in our sector that technology will invariably rain down upon us, right down to – as Mr. Cooke details – the geography of our supply chain. 

Why?  Because each one of these questions is a game-changer.  A real, honest-to-goodness game-changer.

Besides, if there’s one thing that this crazy life and these crazy times have taught me, it’s this; while the right answers are always nice to have, sometimes in our little corner of the economy they’re no more important than asking the right questions. 

Leave a Reply