Unlocking ourselves from the supply chain

Is there a way to extricate ourselves from this place in which we have no knowledge of or control over the things that we depend on for our very survival?

Back in 1997, a fire broke out in a factory in Japan.

This doomed factory made many different products, but in particular, it manufactured a part called a P-valve, and every Toyota vehicle had one. The assembly lines dedicated to making P-valves, a crucial component of the braking system, were completely destroyed. And no other factory in the world made this part.

In a clear example of “supply chain disruption,” all of the factories across Japan and around the world that assembled Toyota cars and trucks had to shut down — or produce vehicles without brakes.

That meant no employment for thousands of workers up and down the supply chains; none of the thousands of parts that go into a Toyota were needed until the P-valves were once again being produced.

And so no new cars rolled off the assembly lines, which meant no profits for the company or shareholders and no new Toyotas in showrooms around the world.

It was a financial disaster for Toyota — and a wake-up call for all industries.

Since that time, companies have made efforts to mitigate supply chain issues. But in these modern times, supply chains have become unimaginably complex and vulnerable — the opposite of resilient.

The cars we depend on, the devices we use daily —from computers to microwave ovens (which require microchips that are currently in short supply and not made in the United States) — and all of the other things that make up modern life, have a staggering number of parts that are made in factories all over the world.

As we learned from the Toyota fire, one interruption can cause chaos all the way down the line.

Added to the complexity of the myriad invisible supply chains that affect our everyday lives is the fact that every supply chain depends on one product that has a long and fragile supply chain of its own: oil.

Every factory around the globe depends on oil to run its machinery and deliver its workers to the assembly lines and its products to consumers, including the fuel for container ships, trains and delivery trucks.

The supply chain for petroleum alone is mind-boggling.

From the drilling rigs with specialized drill bits that cut through rock thousands of feet deep, to the pipes and couplings and the diesel-powered electric generators, there are tens of thousands of parts that make up the whole that is a drilling rig.

Even something as small and seemingly insignificant as a screw or bolt —specially designed or hardened — has a supply chain that is vulnerable to disruption.

And that’s just the drilling rig. Once the oil is pumped out of the ground, it enters another equally long, complex and vulnerable supply chain. Just the trucks alone, the ones that both facilitate the extraction of the oil and the tankers that transport the crude oil as well as the finished product, gasoline, have their own supply chains.

Like the Toyotas, they have brakes that require P-valves, engines that require thousands of individual parts, transmissions that require completely different parts, electrical systems that depend on a whole different family of parts to function, tires that have their own distinctive supply chain that depends on faraway factories and materials as well as a host of plastic parts that, once again, depend directly on petroleum.

Over the decades and even centuries, our lives and the products that we use and depend on have become more complex.

Imagine life in the Middle Ages when, if you had to transport your product to the market, you loaded it into your wooden wagon that was made by your neighbor using iron worked by a local smith and assembled by a small group of workers who walked to the wagon shop; it was pulled by horses from your own stable that you fed on hay from your field.

The supply chain for this wagon was very short and completely local, with no inputs that were out of the control of the wagon maker. Everything needed to make the wagon was locally available. And if your wagon needed some repair, you could either do it yourself with simple tools and materials or have the wagon maker swing by to fix it for you in exchange for a loaf of bread or a chicken. Simpler times, simpler lives.

Is there a way to extricate ourselves from this place in which we have no knowledge of or control over the things that we depend on for our very survival?

Is there a way to return to a time when we were independent of the supply chains that so profoundly influence our lives?

How much would we be willing to sacrifice in order to be less dependent on so many invisible and fragile supply chains?

As the Toyota fire demonstrated, events beyond predictability can either creep up on us slowly, like a silently rising tide, or jump us from behind like a fire in a factory, shocking us into a brutal realization of our precarious reality.

But the question to ask ourselves might not be, would we choose a different path than this modern life we’re living now, but, given how helplessly immersed we are with all of the devices and machines that we’ve come to depend on for our very existence, could we?

Scott Durkee is a freelance factotum, artist and winemaker. He lives on Maury Island.