Just in time

The Model T Ford, the first vehicle mass-produced on an assembly line

What is it?

Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing is an approach to manufacturing that reduces the stockpiling of parts and products to an absolute minimum, instead fabricating them only as required. This methodology necessitates a tightly integrated workflow of all aspects of production, yet reduces the cost of carrying unsold goods, increases the efficiency of production and ultimately increases profits. First used in the late 1950s by an engine supplier to Ford, it is now used extensively throughout modern manufacturing processes.

The key benefit of JIT manufacturing is clearly its ability to reduce costs: when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s, the company “had more than two months’ worth of inventory sitting in warehouses, more than any other tech company. As computers have a short shelf life, this amounted to at least a $500 million hit to profits.” Apple now maintains a JIT manufacturing process with as little as two days’ worth of stockpiled product.

However, there is also a significant drawback to the JIT approach, best demonstrated by its recent appearance in the Australian news.

When CMI Industrial, a car parts manufacturer for Ford, stopped paying its rent, then failed to meet the terms of an agreed payment plan, and eventually tallied up a backlog of over $100,000 in unpaid rent, the landlord took matters into its own hands and last week locked CMI out of the premises.

The next morning, the 80 Campbellfield employees of CMI arrived at work only to be informed the factory had been shut down. The day after, the Dana Australia factory, via which the CMI parts make their way to Ford, was also closed. With no parts coming in, the day after that, so too were both the Broadmeadows and Geelong factories of Ford itself. All up, almost 2,000 employees were stood down.

What do we think?

The drama unfolding right now in the lives of 2,000 Ford employees provides an unsettling mirror through which we can see all of modern civilisation. More than anything else, our systems of production, consumption, politics, education, the environment, even war, have one thing in common: co-dependency.

Ford cannot make motor vehicles without CMI Industrial supplying the components. Dutch tourists cannot travel without a sky clear of volcanic ash over Iceland. Melburnians cannot eat at restaurants without functional gas plants in Gippsland. A child cannot study anywhere in the world without Google’s million plus computer servers. We cannot go to war in Afghanistan without the eyes of military satellites hurtling through space.

Nowhere is this enmeshing of parts better exhibited than in our cities. So finely tuned are a city’s systems, and so reliant on them are its inhabitants, the city is the canary in the coal mine, the place to look for the first signs of impending failure.

It doesn’t take much: a broken down car on the Monash Freeway causes a traffic jam on Dandenong Road. Carlton and Essendon play at the MCG and the entire city grid of mobile telecommunication networks is clogged. A deluge of rain causes stormwater drains to overflow and streets to flood, while a string of hot days in summer causes rail lines to buckle and hundreds of train services to be cancelled.

Day after day, without even realising it we test the limits of our infrastructure. What will happen when something truly catastrophic occurs?

In our global civilisation, our reliance on one another, and on barely-understood processes run by invisible organisations, is greater than it has ever been before. We are so tightly co-dependent that when any part fails, the entire system crashes. The cascading closure of Ford and its parts manufacturers reveals to us just how precarious our comfortable existence is, how little buffer we have between us and utter chaos.

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