Rassling Rattlers

Understanding supply chain behavior means developing a healthy respect for both the thought at the engineering end and the emotion at the customer end.

If you want to gain control of a rattlesnake, you get hold of its business end — its head. That’s the end that’s most costly to the “business acquaintances” it meets. But before you can control a rattlesnake, you have to listen for the rattle at its other end.

Supply chains are like snakes (humor me). At the head you have product engineering. That’s the dangerous end, where 85 percent of a product’s cost gets locked in. But at the tail you have customers who make the rattle in your head that you need to listen for if you’re going to manage this critter. Paying attention to both ends, as well as the muscular coils in between, will save your life.

While many industries try to control their rattlesnakes, automotive OEMs are trying to train theirs. Take a look at our “Conventional Wisdom” report on AIAG’s Auto-Tech conference on page 12, and you’ll see what I mean. Training depends on good communication, and the automakers are starting to train their engineering staffs to trade engineering designs electronically with suppliers. This has all kinds of supply chain implications, even toward the rattling end. Read the report and you’ll see what I mean.

But other training methods were also discussed in Detroit.

OEMs are trying to train lift truck operators to stop running over pedestrians in their plants. That’s the idea behind the first in a series of lift truck operator training modules being produced in conjunction with AIAG as part of a best-practices handbook. In addition to the “pedestrian/vehicle interface,” other sections will address technical innovations, equipment specifications, operator training, ergonomics, maintenance best practices and application guidelines.

Why start with the pedestrian/vehicle interface? Because 51 percent of reported industrial-truck-related injuries involve pedestrians, explained Mark Tepen, powered equipment safety specialist at Ford. Thirteen percent involve more than one vehicle. Twelve percent involve dumping a load. And 10 percent of the cases involve hitting a fixed object. All these incidents drain safety and productivity from the supply chain.

There were also several sessions in which automotive OEMs were trying to train suppliers to work more efficiently in their “extended enterprise.” DaimlerChrysler introduced its online scorecard, designed to improve communication among suppliers, customers and buyers. The score card measures quality, cost, supply and technology. Ratings are indicated by various-size bubbles. The bigger the bubble, the better supplier you are. Suppliers can compare their bubbles to those of their competitors. “It used to be ours was your business to lose,” explained a DaimlerChrysler executive. “Now it’s your business to earn.”

Out on the production lines, even the design of containers is used as a gauge of productivity — and a means of communication. Wayne Van Den Boom, manager quality, daily operations and plant support for GM, explained how designing their own in-plant containers helps them more precisely govern the mix and quantity of parts on the line and, therefore, make worker activity more uniform. Ken Sicheneder, corporate material handling engineering platform manager for DaimlerChrysler, says his company is improving line efficiency by bringing to production only what’s necessary via small lot deliveries.

Detroit’s lesson: Supply chain management takes enterprise-wide brains, guts and muscle. Do you have what it takes to become a master snake charmer?

Tom Andel, chief editor, [email protected]

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