In Need of a Good Plan B

As I was reading a press release this week on the critical shortage of shipping containers and cargo space in the world, and the implications that shortage holds for manufacturers across the globe, I immediately thought of the Internet.

The brilliance of the Internet is its redundancy. When first conceived by the U.S. Department of Defense, the world wide web was developed as a communications network that relied not so much on a handful of main arteries, but an ever-expanding series of smaller ones.

The thinking was that each branch of the military and all government agencies needed to have a fail-safe way of communicating with each another — a network full of contingencies — in the event a major catastrophe took down the country’s communications backbone.

A system, in other words, which if one door closed, a dozen others would open.

If there’s anything we’ve learned recently, it’s that the world’s global supply chain needs such a network.

Think about how the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan literally shut down auto plants throughout the world — shutdowns which resulted because inconsequential components like ash trays and cup holders were suddenly unavailable.

But that’s only one example.

The New York Times recently reported about how China’s industrial sector is facing a major crises. The entire Chinese economy, including its powerful manufacturing arm, is becoming increasingly reliant on a creaky national trucking system that is both woefully disorganized and horribly inefficient.

And it certainly doesn’t take a genius to see how one single variable like gas prices could throw a wrench into this country’s current economic recovery.

So when I hear that raw materials and finished products are backing up in seaports across the globe, not for lack of customers, but for lack of shipping containers, it occurs to me we desperately need something like a manufacturing Internet — a network, if you will, full of Plan B’s.

Whether it’s developed by private companies, academics, engineers, logistic experts, or even the DOD itself, doesn’t matter. What matters is that a series of backup plans gets built into the world’s current supply chain.

Sure it will be hard. And sure its going to require a measure of mutual cooperation and sacrifice. But it’s got to happen. It really does.

The current global supply chain that manufacturers like myself employ is simply too fragile, too linear and too reliant too many potential road blocks.

Like, you know, cup holders.

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