August 2008 Archives

mexico.jpgMexico is currently being considered as an alternative sourcing option to China, especially by some US-based supply chains eager to bring production closer to home. Yet they are not the only ones hoping to find new opportunities in Mexico, so are manufacturers from....China.  

At the Supply Chain Digest, Dr David Simchi-Levi of MIT has proclaimed that the dramatic rise in fuel prices and transportation costs of recent times constitutes a tipping point where logistics costs have started to negate the unit cost advantages of China and other Asian countries. As a result, Simchi-Levi has noted a number of companies that have either put Asian offshoring on hold or have brought production back to domestic or nearshore sources, the so-called in-sourcing (or near-shoring) phenomenon that is raising Mexico's profile for US sourcing and supply chains.

And logistics costs are not the only concerns with China. As this article from IHT outlines, inflation, rising labor costs, shortages of workers and energy, a strengthening currency, and dwindling tax breaks for foreign investors all have multinationals encouraging their suppliers to diversify out of China. With the so-called China plus one strategy, companies are expanding their bases elsewhere in Asia (particularly Vietnam) so as not to be overly dependent on factories in one country. Yet few companies are actually closing factories in China, and for those with large operations in China, China plus one is only a strategy intended to mitigate risk and control costs.

If US supply chains are not about to retreat en masse back to Mexico, expanding Chinese auto manufacturers are preparing to advance into Mexico to get a foothold in America. Following the Chinese company First Auto Works, who announced plans to build an assembly plant in Mexico with Grupo Salinas, private Chinese auto manufacturer Geely Automobile this week also announced plans to move ahead with construction of an assembly plant in Mexico to supply both the North and South American markets. Geely and a local partner will invest up to $270 million to build a factory in Leon, capital of Guanjuato state in central Mexico. With the plant eventually set to have an annual capacity of 300,000 units, Geely wants Mexico to be a stepping-stone for achieving its ambitions of conquering the US market.

And Geely might pave the way for a host of Chinese manufacturers to head into Mexico. With China now being Mexico's second largest trading partner, during his visit to China in July Mexican President Felipe Calderon invited Chinese business leaders to invest in Mexico:
We do want global investment, and if there are (Chinese) companies that are thinking about investing in other (Latin American) nations, but those nations are not hospitable to investment, they should know that they are welcome in Mexico and we protect their rights.
So if some US supply chains are forced to head back closer to home in Mexico, manufacturers in China are prepared for a big push westwards, to Mexico and beyond.

In what the Financial Times describes as a great leap, next year (and four years earlier than expected) China is set to become the world's largest producer of manufactured goods with 17% of manufacturing value-added output, while the rapidly weakening US economy will have to settle for second place with 16%. Underlining the surge of China's manufacturing-led economy (China contributed only 3% of global manufacturing in 1990), The Financial Times is in no doubt about the historical significance of the development:
The expected change will end more than a 100 years of US dominance. It returns China to a position it occupied, according to economic historians, for some 1,800 years up to about 1840, when Britain became the world's biggest manufacturer after its Industrial Revolution.
One defining element that typified the divergence between China and the West during the latter's rise to ascendancy during the Industrial Revolution was the utterly novel ability to build a machine, and a steam engine in particular - the quintessential invention of the Industrial Revolution. Here I can only acknowledge my sage old history professor at the London School of Economics, Prof Kent Deng who, with his paper Why the Chinese Failed to Develop A Steam Engine, delved into the multiple reasons why pre-modern China was never able to progress from building production processes relying on human or natural forces to inventing a man-made engine utilizing the conversion of one form of energy to another, as is the case with the steam engine.

Yet in an inverted parallel between ancient China and the modern, confident Middle Kingdom, contemporary China's ability to build and export various machines is indeed setting it apart from the rest of the world. Apart from its imminent status as the world's leading manufacturer, China is now the world's leading exporter of machinery and electrical equipment (i), and it exports more high technology than Germany and Japan (ii). Most (56%) of its high tech exports, moreover, go to the US, Japan and Germany (ii), and its high tech exports to the US has grown by 197% from 1990 to 2004 (ii).

Thumbnail image for Locomotive.jpgIf 2009 is then to be the year when China officially returns to a position of dominance in the world, it remains a fascinating sight to behold China's ongoing great leap into the unknown - by no means a perfect journey, but history moving before our eyes.

(i) Source: UN Statistical Database HS 2002.
(ii) Source: OECD, STAN Bilateral Trade Database, 2006 edition.


China's manufacturing has primarily been export-driven. This has been due to a large historical price gap. Other gaps, however, have resulted in huge costs, long delays, and a lack of knowledge for manufacturers, buyers and end customer expectations. These are information transfer gaps.

To improve supplier management, these information gaps must be sealed. Companies are doing this through end-to-end supply chain monitoring. A method for linking the manufacturer with end expectations will reduce operational risks. Likewise, conveying manufacturer production and lead time expectations to the customer can reduce costs.

Examples in Product Dying
Information and material flows in product dying are complex. Color pallets are created by designers. The pallets are then translated to dying machines. Once confirmed, dying colors must be maintained within a variance to minimize coloration discrepancies. If just one process occurs incorrectly, work-in-process inventory can turn to waste.

The challenge is translating the color pallet to the manufacturer. This takes technical knowledge of machinery calibration and material characteristics, engineer to engineer. Unfortunately, errors are caused by knowledge transfer from marketing staff to engineer. For example, a foreign buyer switches suppliers in China. The color pallet is referenced as displayed on the buyer's website or a sample is provided. Is the new manufacturer expected to recreate the color only by sight?

The Problem Permeates Sourcing
Many companies face this reality daily. With far removed buyers more closely associated with higher value added marketing and branding, technical knowledge needed to address engineering challenges is often left to the manufacturer's discretion. Here is another example.

In the apparel industry, raw material is defined by the end-customer in terms of feel, fit, and perceived value. The buyer's responsibility is to translate these qualitative characteristics into tangible products. There is a divergence in the production process, however. The buyer relays marketing language such as 100% cotton, feels cheap, and wrong shape. The manufacturer relays material specifics in technical language: vertical and horizontal thread count, weight per square meter, and stitch width per mm.

To address this issue, technical knowledge must be conveyed directly to the manufacturer. Passing through intermediaries may create potential miscommunications. On-the-ground teams who understand the product, material and process specifics are essential. To minimize the risk of error, bring the customer to the manufacturer.

With rising costs, it is clear China is entering a new phase. The new era will focus more attention on customer-driven metrics instead of direct cost and quality. Being closely integrated in supply chain flows will be essential for supplier managers to unlock once hidden productivity and efficiency gains. As global supply chains become longer, sustainable advantages will be solidified through increased collaboration in supply chain operations.

Bradley A. Feuling is the CEO of Kong and Allan, based in Shanghai, China. Kong and Allan is a consulting firm specializing in supply chain operations and global expansion.
IPR image.jpgWith the Games now in full swing, Olympic tourists would be unaware of the concentrated efforts on the streets of Beijing that preceded their visit to the Chinese capital. Foreigners residing in Beijing before the Games would know, however, that cheap DVDs are no longer freely available on the street corners, while Beijing's Silk Street has been put through what Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan described as rectification. If there are visible outcomes of the Chinese government's claims of taking Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) seriously, these are part of it.

Crackdowns in China are no small feat: China's scrap with the counterfeit industry has historically been of epic proportions. The tide of Western companies setting up production in China has provided numerous opportunities to copy designs and production techniques, and China's rising middle class (according to Supply Chain Digest) has been eager to snap up realistic looking knock-offs at low-ball prices. 80% of all items confiscated in 2007 by U.S. Customs authorities as counterfeit items, moreover, were produced in China, pointing to an advanced global distribution network for fake goods.

The latest crackdown in China was preceded by warnings in June of harsher punishments about to be meted out to piracy offenders. Copyright Management Bureau Director Xu Chao admitted to a grave piracy situation in China, yet as part of China's new Intellectual Property Rights Strategy, Xu promised better administrative protection of copyrights and harsher judicial penalties. Yet while a sign of changes on the ground, crackdowns in China still occur in a general context of lax enforcement of IPR, a description preferred by the Economist's Intelligence Unit, based on their analysis of China's still fragmented regulatory environment with various toothless agencies and biased courts.

Nevertheless, yesterday's edition of the China Daily newspaper reports of a crackdown planned for the local cultural market in the city of Anshan, Liaoning province. During the crackdown,
law enforcement officials will inflict a stiff punishment on offenders. If the amount of pirated [goods] sold in one time do not exceed 100 items, all illegal goods and income will be confiscated, and the law breaker will be punished a minimum of 10,000 yuan (sic).
Yet if the amount of pirated goods exceeds 500 items, the article concludes with the terse yet ominous proclamation: the law-breaking unit or individual will bear criminal liability.

So despite China's infamous status as the counterfeit capital of the world, with the current crackdown in force, copyright offenders in China have been put on notice: surpass the magic number of 500 and you will face the full might of the law. Yet like with all crackdowns, the real test will be to see what happens after the crackdown, or more to the point, after the Olympics.

Image: China Daily.
The impact of volatile oil prices and rising transportation costs is still sending shock waves across global supply chains, illustrating the potentially tenuous foundations of low-cost country sourcing and raising new claims that China sourcing is about to be eclipsed.

As The New York Times put it, globalization may be losing some of the inexorable economic power it had for much of the past quarter-century, because cheap oil, the lubricant of a fast global transportation network, may not be returning anytime soon, upsetting the logic of diffuse global supply chains that treat geography as a footnote in the pursuit of lower wages. Yet the greatest impact of rising transportation costs will not be a reversing trend in globalization, but rather that companies will seek to move production closer to consumers, like the growing number of U.S. electronics manufacturers that are returning production to Mexico. Hence globe-spanning supply chains, most of which involve China at some point, make less sense today than they did a few years ago, and a likely outcome if transportation costs remain high is a strengthening of the so-called neighbourhood effect where manufacturers would seek supplies closer to home instead of where they can be bought most cheaply.

Yet as The Economist cautions, if there is a migration of manufacturing growth from China, it is hardly an exodus: the latest trade figures do not show a decrease in Chinese exports but only a drop in their pace of growth. And because buyers on the other side of the ocean absorb the bigger share of fuel surcharges on freight, higher shipping costs are not as big a factor in China as the rising yuan or increasing costs for raw materials. Considering increased labour costs in foreign markets and the volatility in oil prices, moreover, leaving China is not a decision any company can ever take lightly.

Thus for the claims of reversing globalization and increasingly drawing manufacturing away from China, rising and volatile oil prices may be inducing some companies to consider moving production closer to home, but all things considered, for the foreseeable future China remains the sourcing destination of choice.
Peri.jpgPanda.jpg Does the Peri minicar (left), built by China's Great
Wall Motor, look remarkably similar to the Fiat Panda (right)?

A Turin court was in no doubt last month when it barred the Peri from being sold in the E.U., after an appeal by Fiat. Yet unsurprisingly, Great Wall Motor was able to shrug off the Italian court's decision, because a few days later a Chinese court dismissed the claim filed by Fiat in China alleging the GWPeri model was an infringement of its patent.

The Peri/Panda case is by no means the first claim of imitation against Chinese auto makers. In 2006 The Times described at length how the likes of General Motors, Rolls-Royce, BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Honda, Audi, Nissan, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz have all had to fend off a so-called attack of the clones from Chinese manufacturers like Chery, Shuanghuan, Hongqi, Geely and JiangLing. Some analysts have even concluded that Western manufacturers have to accept copying as part of the price of doing business in China, like Honda concluded when it lost half of its motorcycle manufacturing market share in China to cheaper Chinese immitations. Staying in China, Honda decided, required entering into partnership with some of the very companies copying its bikes. 

Yet with the steady growth of the Chinese car market, China is no longer producing just lower-value clones. Chinese brands have grown to the point that 57% of all vehicles sold in China in 2006 were from local manufacturers, and in March 2006 Chery Automobile became the first Chinese auto maker to top the domestic car sales list. To actually break in to markets overseas, however, and to overcome their disadvantages in product and business model innovation and manufacturing quality, Chinese car makers have to make a quantum leap across the automotive value chain, enhance quality standards while developing unique models. While positioning itself for exports, Chery has been co-operating with global design and engineering experts and is now boosting exports to markets such as Egypt, Italy and Russia.

For many years regarded as low-end, unreliable brands, Chinese auto manufacturing is experiencing a gradual coming of age with the global emergence of Chery, and with the growth of the market in China and government encouragement of R&D, China will gradually lose its knack for manufacturing cheap clones.

Additional sources:
China. An Automotive Industry on the Verge (Accenture)
Shaping the Future of China's Auto Industry (McKinsey)
Foreign Technology in China's Automobile Industry (China Environment Series)

Images: (Panda) (Peri)

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