December 8, 2023

Fear of Shortages Drives Panic Buying of Japanese Goods

Businesses in a number of industries are trying to adapt to a new reality. No longer can they count on reliable access to critical supplies, a fact prompting frantic phone calls, contingency planning and product redesigns.

For instance, film and television producers, along with the companies that support them, are scrambling to stock up on commercial-grade videotape. A major supplier, the Sony Corporation, closed its factories in Japan. Many studios say they face no shortage now, but there is a fear of a shortage — and that is all it takes to put companies on edge.

“Folks everywhere know there will be a shortage and are buying as much as they can,” said Thomas Engdahl, chief executive of Advanced Digital Services, which archives Hollywood shows and is among the many companies frantically calling videotape distributors. “It’s creating panic buying.”

Short of parts, automakers including General Motors have slowed or stopped production at some plants. Other manufacturers like Nokia, the Finnish cellphone maker, have said they expect disruptions.

But even companies that have maintained relatively normal operations have had to hustle. In San Jose, Calif., just hours after the earthquake, employees of Echelon, which sells smart meters that monitor electricity consumption, held an emergency meeting to discuss the potential effect on their supply chain. Identifying every supplier from Japan was the top priority, said Russell Harris, Echelon’s senior vice president for operations.

Echelon and the contractor that builds its smart meters quickly came up with a list of 25 suppliers that were responsible for more than 50 components. Within a few days, they had contacted each one and found, to their relief, that none of those factories had been damaged.

“We got lucky,” Mr. Harris said.

But that is no guarantee the luck will hold. Suppliers depend on basic materials to keep their factories running, and any disruption to that spigot — a particular chemical or tiny part that has become scarce, for example — could shut down the entire chain.

Production delays would be painful for Echelon. Contracts with utilities often require it to pay financial penalties for late deliveries.

Because of the high stakes, Echelon had never embraced the strategy of just-in-time manufacturing, whereby companies keep just a small amount of inventory on hand. Rather, Echelon usually keeps a few months of supplies — at least for components that are available from only one source.

The approach, which had lost favor among speakers at management conferences and authors of business books, turned out to be a blessing after the earthquake, Mr. Harris said. Still, he got approval to buy even more components on the spot market to tide the company over through the summer.

Meanwhile, Echelon started a search for alternate suppliers outside of Japan, just in case. For some components like microcontrollers, tiny microchip-like devices, there are no other options, Mr. Harris said.

For now, Echelon’s production is normal, as it tells customers who have been calling. But there remain many unknowns — how quickly Japan’s factories come back online, when transportation is restored or when the danger of nuclear contamination is over — that could still affect the supply chain.

“The particular impact from this disaster is still unfolding,” Mr. Harris said.

A number of companies that make circuit boards — the electronic nerve center inside computers — are also in upheaval. The earthquake caused a huge swath of Japan’s semiconductor industry to close along with the factories that make a quarter of the world’s silicon wafers, the raw material used in semiconductors, according to IHS iSuppli, a market research firm.

Typically, manufacturers or distributors have stockpiled enough semiconductors and most other computer parts to feed production for several months. But to be safe, circuit board makers are starting to redesign their products so that they can more easily switch components if there is a shortage, said Paul J. Reilly, an executive vice president at Arrow Electronics, a technology supply chain company based in Melville, N.Y.

“While a replacement part may function similarly, it may not have the same shape,” Mr. Reilly said. “You may not be able to squeeze it on the same computer board.”

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