Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Toyota recall reminds me of biodiversity issues

The article in question makes a point: "The massive size of the newly announced recall underscores the risks manufacturers like Toyota face when they share basic components on a wide range of vehicles hoping to improve manufacturing economies of scale."

This is the same issue farmers face when choosing to grow a single type of crop, and the world faces as we trample individual cultures.  It's an interesting problem, because you can't argue with the profitability of such decisions, but you need to be wary of the unintended consequences.

The article:
Toyota to hold world's biggest car recall for 16 years - Bottom Line

This also makes me think of the book I'm reading, 1491 by Charles Mann.  In it, Mann describes how the original Americans not only engineered corn from the original plant teosinte, but developed a method of farming called a "milpa" which is essentially the exact opposite approach, in agriculture, of that taken by Toyota in sharing a single part across multiple models. 

Wikipedia quotes Mann:
"A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato, jícama, amaranth, and mucana.... Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins and niacin;.... Beans have both lysine and tryptophan.... Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats. The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, "is one of the most successful human inventions ever created."

The point here is that Toyota receives the intended benefit of reduced cost and a simplified supply chain through standardizing on a particular part across models and product lines, but it receives the unintended consequence of increased exposure in the event of part failure, and also increased exposure to supply company failure if it decided to source the part from a single manufacturer.

Had Toyota selected a milpa-like approach on the part, such as sourcing multiple variants of the part, and sourcing those parts from multiple suppliers (to be fair I think Toyota spreads supplier risk already) then complexity is certainly increased, but risk is reduced, and one can imagine a host of other unintended benefits.