Chinese factories are returning, but global supply chain remains uncertain

Scott Tong Apr 28, 2020
Workers in face masks at a car seat factory in Shanghai. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese factories are returning, but global supply chain remains uncertain

Scott Tong Apr 28, 2020
Workers in face masks at a car seat factory in Shanghai. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

At the startup Wire, which sells and leases electric scooters, the next-generation model is almost ready to ship out from the factory in China. Almost.

“We have like 90% of the components available to us, but there are just a couple of pieces that we can’t get,” said co-founder Nick Drombosky. “All it takes is one missing part to not have a finished product.”

In the manufacturing world, you need everything to make anything. In March 2011, the deadly tsunami that struck eastern Japan took out the one plant in the world that made one ingredient for auto paint. This held up the industry for months.

Drombosky doesn’t actually know when his parts will come in.

“At the end of March, we got emails from pretty much everyone we’ve ever done business with in China,” he said. “It was like a copied-and-pasted message saying, ‘Everything’s great here. The Chinese government’s done an amazing job handling this epidemic, and our factory is fully reopened.’ And then you would email them back saying, ‘OK, can I get this?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, not yet.’ “

“It was like a copied-and-pasted message saying, ‘Everything’s great here … our factory is fully reopened.’ “

Nick Drombosky, Wire co-founder

One limitation may be factory workers, who are overwhelmingly migrant workers from rural China. Some are struggling to return to the plants.

“Either because of transportation disruptions, or in many cases they couldn’t find a place to live,” said Dexter Roberts, journalist and author of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World. “The locals there see them as outsiders and are worried about the virus, and didn’t want them to come back.”

Cranking up the global manufacturing machine is not just about China. A typical car assembled in China contains some 30,000 parts coming in from multiple countries, many still facing the peak of the pandemic.

“If these different countries are in different stages of the disease, have different policies about lockdown, I think these reopenings are not going to be smooth,” said Susan Helper, economist and supply chain scholar at Case Western Reserve University.

Still, many analysts think things could have turned out far worse. Many businesses carried just enough spare inventory. Middlemen put goods on planes instead of ships to speed them to market. And demand for Chinese products fell off when the rest of the world suffered from COVID-19.

Also auspicious: Chinese factories went down for just three weeks or so.

“Had the delay been months as opposed to weeks, I think the impact would have been more acute.”

Shawn DuBravac, IPC economist

“Had the delay been months as opposed to weeks, I think the impact would have been more acute,” said economist Shawn DuBravac of the electronics manufacturing trade group IPC.

DuBravac said every time there’s a manufacturing disruption — from a virus, a natural disaster or a trade war — supply chain professionals learn new lessons. One solution widely discussed is to bring some manufacturing closer to home in key industries like medical supplies.

For now, however, China remains a critical manufacturing hub, given its skilled workforce, experience with foreign investors and world-class highways and ports. Just about every sector has exposure to the world’s second-largest economy.

“If you think you’re immune, you’re operating under a delusion,” said Thomas Derry, CEO of the Institute for Supply Management. “Everyone is exposed. Even if you think you’re not directly impacted, you’re indirectly impacted.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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