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032011_Global_Supply_Chain

032011_Global_Supply_Chain - Stress Test for the Global...

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Stress Test for the Global Supply Chain By STEVE LOHR New York Times, Business Section, Sunday, March 20, 2011 TONY PROPHET, a senior vice president for operations at Hewlett-Packard , was awakened at 3:30 a.m. in California and was told that an earthquake and tsunami had struck Japan. Soon after, Mr. Prophet had set up a virtual “situation room,” so managers in Japan, Taiwan and America could instantly share information. Mr. Prophet oversees all hardware purchasing for H.P.’s $65-billion-a-year global supply chain, which feeds its huge manufacturing engine. The company’s factories churn out two personal computers a second, two printers a second and one data-center computer every 15 seconds. While other H.P. staff members checked on the company’s workers in Japan — none of whom were injured in the disaster — Mr. Prophet and his team scrambled to define the impact on the company’s suppliers in Japan and, if necessary, to draft backup plans. “It’s too early to tell, and we’re not going to pretend to predict the outcome,” Mr. Prophet said in an interview on Thursday. “It’s like being in an emergency room, doing triage.” The emergency-room image speaks volumes. Modern global supply chains, experts say, mirror complex biological systems like the human body in many ways. They can be remarkably resilient and self-healing, yet at times quite vulnerable to some specific, seemingly small weakness — as if a tiny tear in a crucial artery were to cause someone to suffer heart failure. Day in and day out, the global flow of goods routinely adapts to all kinds of glitches and setbacks. A supply breakdown in one factory in one country, for example, is quickly replaced by added shipments from suppliers elsewhere in the network. Sometimes, the problems span whole regions and require emergency action for days or weeks. When a volcano erupted in Iceland last spring, spewing ash across northern Europe and grounding air travel, supply-chain wizards were put to a test, juggling production and shipments worldwide to keep supplies flowing. But the disaster in Japan, experts say, presents a first-of-its-kind challenge, even if much remains uncertain . Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, and a vital supplier of parts and equipment for major industries like computers, electronics and automobiles. The worst of the damage was northeast of Tokyo, near the quake’s epicenter, though Japan’s manufacturing heartland is farther south. But greater problems will emerge if rolling electrical blackouts and transportation disruptions across the country continue for long.
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