Auto Makers Retreat From 50 Years of ‘Just in Time’ Manufacturing

Updated: May 19

By Wall Street Journal

This article was published in Wall Street Journal May 3, 2021. While the article does not directly cover the sewn products industry, it does address a challenge that many industry's are facing as they reassess how their supply chains function. And, of course, many sewn product suppliers provide the equipment and machinery used to create automotive interiors.

TOKYO— Toyota Motor Corp. is stockpiling up to four months of some parts. Volkswagen AG is building six factories so it can get its own batteries. And, in shades of Henry Ford, Tesla Inc. is trying to lock up access to raw materials.

The hyperefficient auto supply chain symbolized by the words “just in time” is undergoing its biggest transformation in more than half a century, accelerated by the troubles car makers have suffered during the pandemic. After sudden swings in demand, freak weather and a series of accidents, they are reassessing their basic assumption that they could always get the parts they needed when they needed them.

“The just-in-time model is designed for supply-chain efficiencies and economies of scale,” said Ashwani Gupta, Nissan Motor Co.’s chief operating officer. “The repercussions of an unprecedented crisis like Covid highlight the fragility of our supply-chain model.”

Consider Ford Motor Co. and its F-150 pickup, the bestselling vehicle in the U.S. The latest version is crammed with technology including a hybrid gas-electric drive and automatic Tesla-style software updates.

With vaccinations beginning to beat back Covid-19, customers bought around 200,000 F-150s in the first quarter of this year, its best retail start in 13 years. Yet now supply is short. Truck factories were shut down or had limited production for all of April and the slowdown will likely continue through at least mid-May. The hit to pretax profit is as much as $2.5 billion.

The basic idea of just in time is avoiding waste. By having suppliers deliver parts to the assembly line a few hours or days before they go into a vehicle, auto makers don’t pay for what they don’t use. They save on warehouses and the people to manage them.

But as supply chains get more global and car makers increasingly rely on single suppliers, the system has grown brittle. The crises are more frequent.