When start-up off road Australian car manufacturer Tomcar sought government assistance in the early 2010’s to strengthen the foundations of the company its founder, David Brim recalls in 2017 his frustration that because Tomcar outsourced the physical production process “we were always penalised by the government because we weren't seen as a manufacturer in their eyes”. [i]Insisting that production “is only one of seven steps in manufacturing" Brim was following thousands of companies that had outsourced, and/or offshored their production function - permanently. The Government had a point too. Its objective in supporting manufacturing was to increase homeland employment, the majority of which could be found in the physical production process. There seemed little value in subsiding companies that had moved that activity offshore.
Today the reverse is true. Governments have a much greater appreciation of the scope of manufacturing, and it makes more sense for many corporations not to offshore. That at least is what seems to be the case on the surface. Although there is an immediacy to act as a result of the dire economic forces and disruptions within global supply chains, manufacturers must take a longer term perspective and weigh in detail the implications and opportunities arising from the benefits of the digitalisation of technology. They must also be responsive to the seismic shift in social behaviours that are an outcome from the waning influence of the baby boomers versus the rising influence of the millennials. In other words, it’s time to rethink long-term corporate strategy.
Despite the strongest wishes of corporations and governments too, there is an inevitability that in the longer term a new form of organisational structuring and method of manufacturing will evolve. Similarly, it is likely that the idea of bringing back outsourced production capabilities (onshoring) is not an option. Among the myriad of reasons why, there are three that standout. First is the fact that the enormity of capital required to undertake such a move is prohibitive. Second is the problem that the complexity and continued gap in comparative wage rates remains impossible to fill. Third is the fact the skills and expertise required to operate in house will at best take time to develop and at worst, are not available at all. In support of the offshoring option, it is apparent that international trade continues unabated, at least for most goods produced even though acrimony on an inter-governmental basis persists.
The good news is that in the Strategic Management Institute’s (SMI) view, a re-emergence of localised manufacturing can be brought about without having to onshore the high volume production that is made overseas. The desired outcome can be achieved through an ambidextrous approach to change whereby cash flow from the high volume, offshore production businesses are applied to the development of new, high tech onshore industries. In reality, the latter is the future of manufacturing anyway, but it won’t look anything like that in existence today.
Adapting to the manufacturing operating environment of the future
The now, regrettably, defunct Tomcar’s decision to outsource production points the finger at the real issue that manufacturers face when defining their strategic role within an integrated supply chain. It is the observation that to make it as effective and efficient as it can be, the so-called ‘end to end’ process shouldn’t be treated as a process at all, rather, it should be treated as a collaborative system. Similarly, corporations in general can’t be defined by any one industry anymore, but rather a cross section of a variety of different industries. Manufacturing is a typical example of this perspective, it isn’t an industry either, it is a sector residing within a broad range of industries. These realities make it hard to determine where manufacturing sits within the mix of industry types and how a single corporation can optimise its profitability. An analysis of fertiliser and mining services company Incitec Pivot provides insight. As a spin off from mining services (explosives) company Orica, Incitec Pivot, in a reverse play, acquired Dyno Nobel, a competitor to Orica. Incitec Pivot’s justification in making the acquisition was that “both were nitrogen-based manufacturing businesses at their core” [ii]. The outcome meant that Incitec Pivot operated in two distinct industries, mining, and agriculture and two distinct markets, blasting services and fertiliser. Quite recently however the company sought to split into two on the basis that although the core ingredient was the same (ammonium nitrate), their customers were not. There are however more subtle differences in the way each division of the company operates. While the agricultural division provides a depth of technical support to farmers, it is essentially a commodity supplier of fertiliser that relies on its fine-tuned supply chain to deliver a competitive advantage in areas other than price. The mining services division however has far greater depth, it operates an integrated supply system that offers a promise to “partner with our customers to optimise their mining operations”.[iii] Mining services supply system includes the provision of explosives (dynamite and similar), delivery, and on-site management of the blast itself. It also collaborates with Sandvik Construction in the provision of training services addressing best practice explosive operations. Had Incitec Pivot adopted the same supply system in agriculture that it offers in mining the decision to split may not have been so attractive to shareholders. That’s not because the added service would have increased sales income alone. It is also because the systemic, collaborative approach to business relationships open the opportunity for Green Shoot strategy opportunities to emerge. Green Shoot strategy is defined by the SMI as a method of identifying new opportunities for growth to emerge from two areas. The first is the leveraging of synergies found in ‘living’ systems (as opposed to processes). The second is the value found in corporate collaborations which are a source of opportunity from the implementation of deliberate, disruptive strategies.
As with many companies Incitec Pivot is extremely competitive in what it does but could well benefit from establishing a more robust picture of what it ‘could be’. It is suggested in this paper that a more scientific, systemic approach to strategy could have provided a more informed basis for decision making. As illustrated in Figure 1, Incitec Pivot was initially focused only on the Resource element of the SMI’s Strategic Architecture [iv] when it acquired Dyno Nobel. In abandoning that one perspective it could then only see the market elements of the architecture as an alternative. The company was apparently not conscious of or ignored the effectiveness of the Differentiating Activities it was conducting to remain competitive in the explosives marketplace. With such a strong focus on resources it did, by default or otherwise, recognise the basis for its continual improvement, its Transforming Activities.
As a living, dynamic system both mining services and agriculture have the opportunity to expand their systemic service solution by adding additional services that would otherwise not have made any sense. The fertiliser division could have ramped up its service solution to manage the delivery and dispersion of its fertilisers on the crops owned by the farmers, potentially a service covering total crop management. Following that, both divisions could also supply machine maintenance services for both divisions,
Figure 1: A Strategic Architecture
they are doing their own so why not the customers. Another is administration and strategic analytical data. If they were both on site managing crops and mineral extraction, they would have access to data tracking inventory movements. This automatically leads to an opportunity to provide a logistics service which would see Incitec Pivot take control of the management of materials at all stages of the mining and farming activities.
Regaining the momentum: Strategies for Future Manufacturing
There are seven components of the supply chain referred to above. They are research and development, design, logistics, production, distribution, sales and after sales service. It is turned into a supply system when an eighth component is added, that of sharing. This component can be conveniently extracted from the six elements of the ‘circular economy’ which is appropriate as the most likely missing link in the supply ‘system’ in most corporations is the one that covers four of at least five elements of the circular economy - waste disposal and “reusing, repairing, refurbishing, recycling”. The sixth component, sharing is the one that gives the circular economy its name. It’s presence however has much broader implications than a simplistic interpretation of its meaning: “an act of working jointly with others.” A strategic interpretation in a corporate context introduces the idea of networked, collaborative, system-based form of commerce as suggested for Incitec Pivot.
When envisaged on a broader scale than just one entity, the notion of Corporate Collaborative Systems (CCS) becomes a reality. The concept was discussed in detail in a previous white paper prepared by the SMI where it was demonstrated that the underlying philosophy of collaboration was grounded in the spirit of sharing. [v] Titled “Inventing Future Corporation: A Corporate Collaborative System” the SMI paper defines a collaborative system as “a collaboration of transaction processing entities that deploy platform-based services capable of hosting many and large commercial networks”. It explains a method of corporate structuring that sees some or many corporations collaborating to form a dynamic network that is representative of a complex, dynamic, living, organic system. In its makeup, a transformation to Future Corporation will entail a systems approach to strategy and structuring, a collaborative approach to organising and the adoption of digital and other forms of advanced technology such as the Internet of Things, Web 3.0, Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence. The adoption of these aspects of business are expected to deliver:
a basis upon which strategic insights into future manufacturing can be based,
the foundation upon which:
complementary offshored manufacturing can be optimised, and
future focused, onshore, high tech, socially responsible manufacturing can be advanced,
a platform upon which independent global corporates or medium sized enterprises can better compete with global, resource rich corporations
a mechanism enabling significant gains in productivity to be realised, and
identification of areas where opportunities for growth can be compounded via the conduct of system based, Green Shoot strategies while also,
delivering global reach to new markets via a network of interrelated business systems.
A strategic model that acts as a driver to the introduction of a collaborative system is an advanced version of the Strategic Architecture presented above. It is referred to as an Integrated Value System and is illustrated in Figure 2. An exploration of the way in which an integrated value system informs practice can be described through the lens of two manufacturing entities that both have operations in Australia. The first is German based Robert Bosch GmbH (Bosch); it represents a prime example of a global corporation that has a strong history in the automotive industry but has diversified its business internationally. This need was enforced on its Australia operation because of the closure of the three international car companies Ford, General Motors (Holden) and Toyota in 2016. Bosch has its roots in automotive parts supply. It became a supplier of braking systems to Volkswagen Australia in the 1950’s. Today, Bosch operates four business sectors around the world: Mobility Solutions, Industrial Technology, Consumer Goods and Energy and Building Technology. These divisions aren’t recognised as true systems yet, but they have the capacity to become so. As a derivative of its former automotive division for example, Bosch’s Mobility Solutions sector’s vision is described in its 2021 annual report[vi] as: “a vision of mobility … that uses its expertise in sensors technology, software, and services as well as its own IoT cloud to offer connected, cross domain solutions from a single source”. Bosch arrived at this position however, only after some 128 years’ of experience. Its current state of being is an outcome from its vast experience in continual transformation and renewal. As a division of a global corporation Robert Bosh (Australia) is just like many other global corporations that follow the same, integrated construct – everywhere. Their investment decisions are made in places like Detroit, London, Stuttgart, or Tokyo. Their leadership is often sympathetic to national interests, but understandably, their commitment to shareholders will ensure they always put company interests first over those of a sovereign state.
For the Australian Government to fulfill its ambition to “diversify and rebuild Australia's industrial base” it must work with business to achieve that highly desirable objective. Each corporation seeking support or just wanting to evolve their business further must in turn commence their journey of transformation with an integrated and systemic approach to their strategic thinking and their appreciation of industry definitions. The starting point is a reframing of ‘what is’ and an envisioning of what ‘could be’. Victorian based MTM Controls is an example of a company that has done just that. MTM is an independent, private company that also has its roots in the automotive industry. It is a company that also suffered at the hands of the ‘Big 3’ car manufacturers leaving the country, but has managed the exit of its major customers well. Since their departure MTM became the outsourced manufacturer to Tomcar. As described on is web site [vii] MTM has also established a joint venture in the USA to supply parts to General Motors owned Cadillac. It has also won independent contracts to supply automotive parts to Toyota USA. In the meantime, MTM is still looking to do more business outside the automotive industry. Therein lies the problem. As described above, MTM is a company desperately seeking products to fill its production capacity, but is unsure what industry it should focus on, and what it all means for its future. From the SMI’s perspective, it is questionable if seeking opportunity outside the automotive industry is the right thing to do. After all, the industry itself is transforming out of ‘automotives’ and into ‘mobility’ systems. Tomcar was a member of the automotive industry, but it wasn’t a part of any system that would make any sense to MTM if they took a system as opposed to a process perspective of business. Maintaining a historical strength as an automotive industry supplier, MTM has the opportunity to become a part of a collaborative system with GM, Toyota and others on a global scale; in the provision of componentry to the others working in the field of mobility systems - just as Bosch has done.
In a reflection of the spirit of an Integrated Value System, MTM rightly boasts its competencies in industrial design, plastics moulding, press shop automation and die design and casting on its web site. In addition, MTM describes its manufacturing facilities as “a capability to help with all needs relating to stamping, moulding and assembly”. These competencies are supported by capabilities in organisational learning, manufacturing support and continual improvement, they all integrate to form a Core Competence Platform as illustrated opposite. MTM’s point of differentiation is its ability to design mould, press or simply manufacture products that will meet the demands of a mobility system. In particular, one that will require many more components than those of cars alone.
Examples include parts for trucks, tractors, motor bikes, boats, trains as well as cars. With an emerging partnership with corporations that include General Motors and Toyota USA and China the opportunity for MTM now is to collaborate with them, and others such as specialists in electronics, robotics, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and other forms of digital technology. In this context MTM would be
Figure 2: An Integrated Value System.
forming its own Dynamic Market System, thereby creating its own Integrated Value System.
Creating the environment for the manufacturing corporation of the future
It’s never been easy for manufacturing focused corporations to identify the means to sow seeds of opportunity that will last for at least the next 50 years. The means and need to do so has increased dramatically in recent times however, as the positive aspects of digitalisation of technology, exacting customer demand and reasonable access to investment capital are amongst the many reasons for such firms to be positive. The added bonus is that despite perceptions to the contrary, climate change, a drive for adherence to Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) disciplines along with a gradual acceptance of new technologies in the community have all translated into demand creating opportunities that the manufacturing sector can provide. There is now a real chance therefore that a more strategic approach to manufacturing will deliver a huge benefit to select corporations.
Manufacturing in Australia has been in serial decline for decades. Seen very much as an outsourced and offshored ‘function’ the purpose of this paper was to encourage those in industry that are associated with a manufacturing capability to reconsider their strategy. Although outsourcing and offshoring is attractive for many reasons its downside is that at the least, it dilutes control over a corporation’s ‘know how’. This means that it also diminishes flexibility while hindering the opportunity to develop an inimitable core competence in manufacturing, a highly desirable attribute that Prahalad and Hamel[viii] once described as a means to ‘make the competition irrelevant’. It could also be argued that outsourcing constrains agility, playfulness, innovation, experimentation and in many cases, romance. This deficiency in turn inhibits the dynamics of organisational culture and organisational learning – in a bad way. Equally however there are many reasons why a return to in house, onshore activities will be beneficial. The tyranny of distance that once plagued Australia’s competitiveness is largely diminished. This is demonstrated by Darwin based, workplace software company SafetyCulture which saw a Green Shoot strategy opportunity which led to an AUD $3 million investment in an internet of things (IoT) networking software start-up company, Inauro. Once a training documents business SafetyCulture’s overall plan today is to apply Inauro’s technology to build an operations platform that automates and connects the billions of industrial-scale machines and devices used by its 60,000 customers. This they suggest will enable them to monitor the data flows on those machines in one place. Another benefit is that there are now methodologies that can ease the transformation process and make investments in manufacturing once again viable. The methodologies were identified in the paper in the form of a Strategic Architecture, and associated Integrated Value System, an ambidextrous approach to change, the concept of a Corporate Collaborative System and the notion of Green Shoot Strategy.
Changes supporting new investment can be justified on the basis that changes in external environmental, dramatic advances in technology and an enduring evolution of social behavior can be an opportunity for manufacturing, not just a threat. In the adoption of the ambidextrous approach to change it could be recommended that corporations continue with outsourced, offshore solutions, but that it incorporates Green Shoot Strategy options as a basis to undertake new, dynamic, disruptive and onshore manufacturing engines of growth. Of course, there is no one size fits all solution. The right one though is identified through the adoption of the programs suggested in this paper.
[i] Waters., C., Tomcar: Australia's last car maker , Sydney Morning Herald, June 6, 2017, https://www.smh.com.au/business/small-business/tomcar-australias-last-car-maker-20170605-gwkh25.html Accessed 22 Jun, 2022 [ii] Macdonald, A., Thompson, S., Sood, K, Incitec pivots to end explosives, fertilisers dream; UBS, Mac on board May 23, 2022, https://www.afr.com/street-talk/incitec-pivots-to-end-explosives-fertilisers-dream-20220523-p5anoeAccessed 2 Jul, 2022 [iii] Incitec Pivot Web Site, About Us: https://www.incitecpivot.com.au/about-us/our-businesses Accessed 23 Jun, 2022 [iv] Hunter, P., Corporate Strategy (Remastered) II: A Fieldbook, Implementing High Performance Strategy and Leadership, Routledge, Oxford, UK, 2020 [v] Strategic Management Institute Web Site, Blogs https://www.smiknowledge.com/post/inventing-the-2040-corporation-evolving-the-corporation-as-a-corporate-collaborative-system [vi] Robert Bosch GmbH Annual report, "Annual Report 2021" (PDF) (Press release), Accessed 29 Jun, 2022 [vii] MTM Automotive Web Site: https://www.mtmauto.com/Accessed 29 Jun, 2022 [viii] Prahalad, C.K., & Hamel, G., The Core Competence of the Corporation, Harvard Business Review, 68(3), 79–91, 1990