Strengthen, secure the supply chain

As the modern supply chain gets more sophisticated, it’s important to integrate your data with your suppliers.


With the continuing drama in Washington and the royal wedding in London, you might have missed two important manufacturing stories that emanated from the same company just two weeks apart.

In late April, Ford announced that starting in 2020, it would no longer produce a full line of passenger cars in the United States. Only the iconic Mustang and the economy sedan Focus would remain on the Ford production schedule as the company shifted attention to its profitable truck line, including the F150 pick-up truck.

Then on May 10, Ford announced it had temporarily suspended production of the F150 after a fire at a Michigan supplier created a shortage of parts. While the company said it had a three-month inventory of trucks available, the production stoppage lasted for the better part of the month.

My first two cars were a Chevrolet Vega and a Ford Pinto, and both names are long gone. In my life, such auto brands as AMC, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac have disappeared completely. Those of a certain age might recall the demise of the Studebaker in the 1960s. 

However sound the business decision, it’s somewhat jarring to see Ford essentially ceding the passenger car business in the U.S. to other manufacturers. From my father’s Fairlane in the 1960s to my Pinto in the 1970s to my current Focus, Ford has been a popular family brand. It has been a successful brand as well; at one time, the Taurus was the most popular domestic sedan in America. Ford has a long tradition in getting America from place to place. 

But getting parts from place to place is important as well, and that’s why the second issue with a supplier becomes the cautionary tale for all of us. We talk about all the potential for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and we marvel at our manufacturing sophistication to build Lot Size One of virtually any product—including vehicles.

In order for this to happen, however, our supply chain must be robust, flexible, and indestructible. The example of what happened at Ford in May with the F150 production—a problem that eventually spilled into other manufacturers as well—ought to be a cautionary tale for everyone. 

It is worth pondering about your own flow of raw materials—and we include energy in this discussion—as you look to improve your manufacturing operation. You can monitor temperature and vibration but all that sensor data won’t help you produce a single item unless there are materials available at your front door to turn into finished goods. 

As the modern supply chain gets more sophisticated, it’s important to integrate your data with your suppliers. That may give some plant managers (and the IT team that operates their system) some concern, but we do find ourselves in the midst of a digital age. We can shy away from it, but that only will serve to slow operations at a time when others are looking to get faster.

Creating a safe, robust, and interoperable supply chain may be one of the more overlooked challenges for the IIoT, but it should get more attention. It will be among the topics in the discussion at the upcoming Global Automation and Manufacturing Summit (GAMS) on Sept. 12, as part of IMTS 2018 in Chicago. CFE Media, in partnership with Hannover Messe USA, will present this half-day seminar on IIoT issues, including cybersecurity. Manufacturing in a digital age is not about the four walls of the plant. Today production stretches to the four corners of our supply chain and to the cloud, where our data is stored. These systems are hard to manage and yet vital to our success. As the example at Ford demonstrates, the supply chain is vital—and fragile. 

Bob Vavra, content manager at CFE Media,

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