A highly significant supply chain related news story comes this week from Honda Motor Co., one that has the potential to bring significant change to North America based manufacturing.  As the Christmas holidays approach, Honda’s North American and supply chain partner employees will certainly have some cheer.

According to an article published in the Wall Street Journal (paid subscription or free metered view restriction), Honda plans to shift a major portion of its production capacity into North America over the next few years.

The implication for Honda’s current North American production facilities and supporting supply chains are highly significant since the numbers indicate as much as a 40 percent increase in production and the positioning of Honda North America as both a producer for both domestic and global export markets.  If the full plans are implemented, North America would represent more than 50 percent of Honda’s global production capability, with export volumes in the range of 200,000 to 300,000 vehicles annually.

The reasons for this major announcement are fairly obvious and far reaching.  With the continued stubborn strength of the Japanese yen making manufacturing exports highly unprofitable, many Japanese based manufacturers can no longer afford to have the bulk of export oriented manufacturing based in Japan.  This has led to many difficult decisions, not only for Japan’s automotive producers, but high tech and consumer electronics manufacturers as well.  The one high visibility exception has been Toyota, with its chairmen continuing to believe that the company has a commitment to continue to have some export production based in Japan. But even Toyota has begun planning for shifting increased capacity and output to North America and other global based facilities.

The other motivation points to global supply chain risk mitigation. The major disruptions concerning the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan and the monsoon-related floods that impacted numerous manufacturing facilities within Thailand have exposed certain risk vulnerabilities. At the height of the tsunami crisis that impacted Japan, Nissan exported V6 engines from its North America plants to Japan in order to keep its southern Japan plants operating. That action, along with others, caused Nissan to overcome the crisis much quicker than some of its Japan based competitors.

As noted in our 2012 Predictions series, 2011 events have been a wake-up call for globally sourced manufacturers, and global insurance and reinsurance carriers are in the process of re-evaluating high risk geographies, which could result in higher insurance premiums for regions more vulnerable to catastrophic natural disaster.

The prospects for increased manufacturing and automotive supply chain related jobs for the U.S. are obvious.  Supply Chain Matters, however, would add a note of caution.  For North America to become a new source of global export capability there will need to be major investments in supply chain and skills infrastructure.  In the case of Honda, the concentration of North American production and supply chain facilities lies in the U.S. Midwest region (Ohio, Indiana, Ontario Canada), and vehicles will have to be transported to export ports on either the U.S. west or east coasts.  If other Japanese and foreign owned manufacturers also expand, current facilities in the U.S. Southern region would add transportation segments to export-related ports.  With the pending opening of an expanded Panama Canal, U.S. ports could experience a dramatic increase in operations. Air freight hubs such as Huntsville and Nashville would be impacted with increased operational volumes.  With inter-modal trucking and rail capacity currently constrained, port authorities as well as rail, third party logistics and trucking carriers will need to invest in added infrastructure, equipment and productivity tools.  In the area of skills, many U.S. manufacturers complain that they cannot fill existing needs because of a lack of technically skilled people.

Our readers in North America should have one significant takeaway from the implications of this latest Honda announcement.  Now is the time to hold politicians and industry accountable for actively supporting and shepherding the required investments in world class transportation, logistics and skills infrastructure that can sustain North America as a global manufacturing hub and a generator of jobs.

The current Congressional gridlock must move beyond partisan politics and focus on what generating jobs really implies.  Recent opinion polls indicate that the U.S. electorate holds their Congressional legislators in the lowest regards.  News commentators now joke that criminals have higher public opinion ratings.

Supply Chain Matters continues to believe that the U.S. Presidential Commission on Jobs and Competitiveness must include in its recommendations both assessment and specific action plans for needed changes in U.S. supply chain and logistics infrastructure, and Congress and industry should immediately act in concert for active implementation of needs.

As the saying goes, when opportunity strikes, take action!

Job growth is on the doorstep, but it comes with a resolve to action. Get involved and have your voice heard.

Bob Ferrari