The Global, Make-to-Order Supply Chain: Is it Time to Examine Alternative Models?

Dell isn't the only just-in-time supply chain on the block; have you looked at the Sun lately? ARC Advisory Group's Steve Banker does a deep dive

Dell isn't the only just-in-time supply chain on the block; have you looked at the Sun lately?

When one thinks of a global, just-in-time, make-to-order supply chain, the first company that comes to mind is Dell. Dell's model might be characterized as a Command and Control model. This, however, is not the only model for running very lean with a global supply chain. Sun has a different model  which we call the Empowered Trading Partner model  that is also worth studying.


Dell's fiscal third quarter results somewhat tarnished their sterling reputation as a paragon of supply chain efficiency. Fiscal third-quarter profit fell by 28 percent on charges. In a pre-quarter warning, they announced that weak sales in the U.K. business and excess inventories in that area were part of the problem. Inventory write-offs are not something you expect from a smooth running supply chain. However, even make-to-order manufacturers must forecast, and forecasts are not always accurate. Dell has historically used pricing as a mechanism for balancing supply and demand. In its second quarter, Dell said that price cuts that normally lifted sales had failed to provide enough of a sales lift to offset the fall in product prices.

This Insight compares and contrasts Dell's Command and Control supply chain with Sun's Empowered Trading Partner model. The Command and Control and Empowered Trading Partner models exist on a continuum. Neither Dell nor Sun can be categorized as being purely in one camp. Nevertheless, within the high-tech industry, Dell is the best example of Command and Control and Sun the best of the Empowered Partner model.

Dell's Command and Control Supply Chain

Dell is a $53 billion public company that manufactures a range of computer systems. The company is headquartered in Round Rock, Texas. The broad outlines of Dell's supply chain are well known. Dell has a direct-to-the-consumer model  it does not sell to retail outlets or use distributors. Global component suppliers ship goods to warehouses generally located within 15 minutes of Dell regional plants, including Dell's newest factory in Austin.

Every 20 seconds Dell aggregates its telephone and Internet orders and analyzes the material requirements. Dell uses i2 SCM to compare their on-hand raw material inventory with their suppliers' inventory and create a supplier bill of material to meet their order requirements. Suppliers have 90 minutes to get their parts to the assembly line.

Dell offers their suppliers a secure extranet that they can use to get a customized view of their materials at Dell, performance management scorecards and other pertinent reports. Supplier's truck trailers line up in front of the cargo bays encircling the factory, 110 of them in Austin. When an assembly line runs low on a key component, a signal goes out and a forklift pulls the components from a trailer. Only once the forklift crosses a white line in the factory, and the shipments bar code is scanned proving that it has crossed the line, does Dell take ownership of these components.

Dell holds inventory only for the six to eight hours it takes to build and configure their computers and for the 18 hours it takes for the completed PC to be trucked to a merge center in Reno, Nev., where the unit is bundled with a monitor and shipped to the customer. Most suppliers, in contrast, are required to stage eight to 10 days worth of buffer stock in multi-vendor warehouses. FastCompany has estimated that Dell's suppliers hold anywhere from 20 to 80 days' worth of total inventory.

ARC recently talked with a supply chain manager that previously worked for Dell. What is not broadly known is how important the use of supply chain event management (SCEM) is for synchronizing their global supply chain. "We were pulling information from almost 200 supplier systems. They were very different systems. We were pulling product extensively from the Far East into the U.S. and then trying to integrate it with the production planning modules. (We had to build a) reporting overlay (to the SCEM solution) to pare down the events to the 20 or so you might be able to manage." Those events included shipment notification from each supplier's factory in Asia.

"We wanted to know what product, quantities and model numbers or serial numbers by SKU [were] being shipped by each one of our suppliers. And then we wanted another alert when it was on the vessel, either the ship or the plane. We would get an alert once we cleared customs. Once the plane landed, we needed to know where the product was and how it was being routed. We wanted to know when it hit the dock at the (DC) and when it was in inventory, (that is) when it was actually put away. When the part hit the factory floor, we wanted to know that as well. We extended it so that each time the product comes off the assembly line it will tell us, 'this type of product is ready for shipment.'"

Dell's supply chain can be characterized as Command and Control because Dell is doing much of the overall planning and synchronization and asking it's suppliers to react to the signals it sends them.

Sun's Empowered Trading Partner Supply Chain

When it comes to logistics service providers (LSPs), some companies use Command and Control while others empower trading partners to make the right decisions, within a set of predetermined guidelines, and then measure the results. What is interesting is that Sun has used the latter approach not just for selected LSPs, but for managing a global supply chain of server manufacturing and shipping that runs very lean. This was an audacious undertaking.

Sun Microsystems is an $11 billion public company headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif. The company sells it products and services for network computing both directly and through indirect channels. In recent years the company has restructured its supply chain for server products. This re-structuring included:

  • Moving a growing percentage of manufacturing, currently over 90 percent of production, to partners in lower cost geographies;

  • Rationalizing their supply base and cutting tiers out of their supply chain so that key strategic partners engage in a greater number of supply chain activities;

  • And, migrating from a Command and Control business model to one in which trading partners are provided visibility to forecasts and orders and are then expected to reliably fulfill orders according to fixed competitive lead times that range from four to 13 days, depending upon the product, and with one-day expedited delivery if customers are willing to pay a premium.
Sun built portals for three tiers of its supply chain that include key component suppliers, contract manufacturing partners and LSPs. This portal shares information residing in Sun's Oracle enterprise applications with partners through customized views that support their data needs. Sun also built its own customized supply chain event management solution, using internal resources and Sun middleware and development tools.

Sun's SCEM supports three key events. The first event is the order schedule date. Exception events are created whenever a partner reports that they cannot make and ship by the required date. Exceptions run at less than 1 percent for this event. The second event is notification from their contract manufacturer one day before they are scheduled to ship. Exceptions occur when their partner has not sent the required acknowledgement or if they send a message that they will not be able to ship as scheduled. This class of exceptions occurs about 6 percent of the time. Contract manufacturer advanced shipping notices (ASNs) are routed to Sun's LSPs. The third event occurs when an LSP confirms delivery. Again an exception is created whenever there is a failure to confirm delivery or an acknowledgement that they will not be able to pickup the goods on the required day. Such exceptions are very rare at this level, less than 1 percent.

Why do we characterize Sun's strategy as an Empowered Trading Partner model? Because, they don't plan the production or fulfillment activities: they set goals for performance, provide appropriate visibility tools, measure performance and hold partners accountable. One benefit of this approach is reflected in the way that partners can bring additional intelligence to the table in this environment. An incident occurred in Singapore in early September of this year that highlights the value. Eugene McCabe, Sun's executive vice president for worldwide operations, was on a panel with this analyst at SCMLogistics World when he read an e-mail from a second-tier component supplier. The supplier had reviewed orders that Sun had issued to their contract manufacturer in China. Based on what they saw, they doubted the size of the component order that they were receiving from the contract manufacturer. They queried Eugene to see if the contract manufacturer was ordering too much. They were. This visibility, and the empowerment to operate on that visibility, ended up saving everyone money.

Other advantages of this model are lower fixed costs, the ability to run with a much leaner supply chain organization, and less total (supplier plus OEM) inventory in the supply chain.


  • Selecting strategic partners, particularly in Asia, takes a considerable amount of work. Sun has discovered that contract manufacturers that have other Command and Control style customers are unsuitable for the Empowered Trading Partner model. They have developed a habit of waiting for commands and struggle to do the planning and execution themselves.

  • High-tech companies working with contract manufacturers in Asia tend to operate in free trade zones. Not only does this provide lower duties, they have discovered the logistics and IT infrastructure to be far superior.
Steve Banker is service director for supply chain management at Dedham, Mass.-based ARC Advisory Group.

Copyrighted by ARC Advisory Group. Reproduced with permission from ARC.

Additional Articles of Interest

 Eugene McCabe, architect of Sun Microsystems' Customer Fulfillment in Transit process, discusses the challenges and rewards of taking links out of the company's supply chain in "Anatomy of the 'Zero Touch' Supply Chain," in the August/September 2005 issue of Supply & Demand Chain Executive.

 Supply chain executives are discovering new ways to apply technology and innovative processes to the challenge of managing uncertainty. Read more in "Rethinking Risk," cover story in the August/September 2005 issue of Supply & Demand Chain Executive.

 Is it possible to preemptively address the business risks associated with product quality? One industry executive thinks so. Read more in "The Quality Risk," the Executive Memo column in the August/September 2005 issue of Supply & Demand Chain Executive.