The backlogs of ships at the ports, the overseas logistics delays, and the subsequent supply chain snarls of the past two years have been covered ad nauseam. But while issues at U.S. ports are beginning to stabilize, the pandemic has revealed an even bigger issue that has yet to be resolved: our overdependence on an overseas supply network and a lack of visibility into where our goods and materials are sourced. We believe the pandemic has revealed the risks of a globalized supply chain and the need to start shifting to a more regionalized sourcing model.
There’s a host of compelling reasons why business leaders must act now to start making this shift—from national security to the health and safety of medically vulnerable Americans to sustainability. It’s time to start restructuring our supply chains so that we are sourcing more from our allies and democratic countries, especially those in the Americas. Indeed, the Biden administration has set a goal of making critical sectors of the U.S. economy less dependent on China. For the U.S., this endeavor will require public-private partnerships and hundreds of billions in government investments, subsidies, incentives, and sourcing mandates. It will also require us to leverage our neighbors to the north and south and set up manufacturing and logistics capabilities across the Americas.
Overseas dependence: a look at how we got here
The pandemic woke us up to the vulnerabilities baked into our historically lean, cost-optimized supply chains. Over the past several decades, we have optimized our globalized sourcing and procurement practices around reducing labor and other input costs. The result is a system that is designed to deliver goods and commodities at the least cost. But this cost-optimized system comes with a high price: we have created fragile supply chains that are vulnerable to disruption and manipulation.
For example, early in the pandemic, we saw shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) including isolation gowns, medical-grade gloves, and masks, as well as ventilators. Between an overnight increase in demand for these items (70% of which came from the country where the pandemic originated) and just-in-time inventory management aimed at reducing stock and cost, the supply chain in the United States couldn’t keep up. This was followed by shortages of critically important drugs, including those needed for treating COVID-19 patients.
Follow-up research from Washington University in St. Louis also revealed longstanding problems with U.S. dependence on foreign manufacturers for active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) for essential medicines and generic drugs.1 Consider this: 97% of all active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) for antiviral drugs and 92% of antibiotic APIs have no U.S. manufacturing source. The Drug, Chemical & Associated Technologies Association blames this weakness on a “race to the bottom” mentality that drove manufacturing to low-cost manufacturing countries that provided structural advantages that the United States did not, such as greater government subsidies, lower input costs (such as a lower minimum wage), and lesser regulatory burdens.
Currently, India and China are the largest global suppliers of APIs, and this overdependence puts the U.S. in a precarious position of being vulnerable to price hikes, as well as supply chain disruptions. In 2021, for example, manufacturing delays from these countries accounted for 11% of all drug shortages in the U.S.
The pharmaceutical industry is not alone in its overdependence on overseas suppliers. Currently half of all global manufacturing is located in Asia. As a result, when U.S. consumers—many still stuck at home and flush with cash from stimulus checks—began buying electronics, vehicles, exercise gear, and other products on a scale that demand modelers couldn’t have forecasted, it resulted in severe port backlogs and delays. The more recent factory shutdowns and logistics delays caused by China’s extreme quarantine policies and its current energy crisis continue to demonstrate how vulnerable the globalized supply chain is to disruption.
A Pan-American supply network
Instead of the current global supply chain with an overdependence on Asian manufacturing, we believe that the United States would gain many financial and strategic benefits from a Pan-American supply network. Consider that in supply chains, speed translates into cash, and flexibility translates to resilience. A regional, “near-shored,” land-based supply chain would accelerate movement across the Americas, substantially reducing transit times. Less time spent in transit would mean less cash tied up in inventory. This equates to reduced working capital requirements and healthier balance sheets.
Creating a Pan-American supply network would require a mix of private investment and public funding and incentives. For example, governmental funding could be used to build a transportation infrastructure that linked the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America. This would create a robust and resilient supply chain corridor that would allow products to flow through the two continents faster and with fewer impediments. By investing in railways, bridges, and highway infrastructure from Canada through Mexico and into Central and South America, we would have a more seamless supply chain infrastructure. Goods and critical resources could be transported by ground from low-cost locations in Central and South America to the U.S. and Canada quickly without requiring water or air transportation (two of the worst offenders when it comes to pollution).
At the same time, we could work to create a Pan-American manufacturing ecosystem. The cost of labor in Mexico and Central America rivals that of China. Additionally, countries in Central America have the population and demographics to support a large-scale manufacturing and logistics footprint (the average age across Central America is 28). Local manufacturing opportunities would be welcomed by Central American communities: They would create jobs, build wealth, reduce the pressure to migrate, and promote political stability in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. We have seen in Asia that supply chain opportunities have the power to uplift hundreds of millions out of poverty. Why not try to replicate that model in troubled countries closer to home?
Initiatives by the U.S. apparel and footwear industry, with support from the Biden Administration, are already beginning to have an impact in developing Central American supply chains. For example, U.S. manufacturer Parkdale Mills recently announced that it is building a multimillion-dollar yarn-spinning factory in Honduras. This investment will enable Parkdale’s customers to shift one million pounds per week of yarn sourcing from Asian suppliers to Honduras while also creating new jobs.
In addition to subsidizing upgrades in transport infrastructure, U.S. trade officials can facilitate this regional shift by providing technical assistance and training to U.S. original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) on how to navigate Central American regulatory structures and business cultures. This might involve advising on key challenges including maintaining compliance, achieving track-and-trace visibility, clearing customs, and best practices on how to reduce risk with carriers.
Of course, a strategic reset of this magnitude will take time and come at a great expense. It would be up to the United States, along with more developed countries like Canada, Mexico, and Brazil to lead the Pan-American initiative and persuade others. But it’s likely other countries in the Americas would be willing to help share the costs given the clear economic, political, and social benefits.
Roadmap to regionalization
We believe that we should fund and provide incentives for supply chain regionalization and diversification for critical industries first. This includes the four sectors prioritized by the Biden Administration in its 2021 report on improving supply chain resiliency: high-capacity batteries, semiconductors, critical minerals and materials, and pharmaceutical APIs. To those sectors, we would add telecommunications, energy, and food.
Pharmaceutical and health care companies are already taking on this challenge. For example, the health care improvement company Premier Inc., an alliance of hospitals and health care providers with extensive pharmaceutical supply chains and distribution networks, has worked with partners and even competitors over the last two years to increase domestic production and sourcing of PPE and APIs.2 Premier is leveraging its supply chain data to identify supplies that are most at risk and investing in those categories with “Buy-American” commitments. Masks, isolation gowns, and exam gloves are all examples of products with such commitments.
Premier recognizes that there are many reasons why the U.S. cannot aspire to become anywhere close to self-sufficient in pharmaceutical API production. For example, there is still a shortage of skilled manufacturing labor in the United States, and there are several key raw materials that region does not produce. The company argues, however, that both U.S.-based and geographically diverse manufacturing is needed to reduce overreliance on a single country or region.
A balanced approach, like the one Premier is taking, is a good first step to help keep costs in check while also helping to alleviate U.S. health care supply chain dependence on foreign nations. Still, this will not be easy nor inexpensive, and the company is urging the U.S. government to fund incentives such as zero-interest loans and tax incentives to “help close the cost gap between domestic and foreign drug manufacturing.”3
It should be noted that in some market segments and industries, it will not pay to invest in a significant re-engineering of supply chains to be more regional and less dependent on Asia. There are some cases where consumers will continue to choose less costly options over items with higher prices due to domestic or regionalized manufacturing. What’s more, China is the world’s largest economy with a vast and growing consumer market. So large global OEMs will want to maintain and, in some cases, continue growing their China-centric supply chains to serve this market as well as the rest of Asia.
Another alternative to supply chain regionalization is what is sometimes called “ally-shoring”—shifting procurement to democratic countries that are reliable U.S. allies. One model for this is how the United States cooperates with its closest allies—Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom—through the National Technology and Industrial Base (NTIB) to produce and supply defense technology.4 Another is the cooperative work between the U.S. and Canada on critical minerals production.5
Mapping out the first step
How do you begin to understand where to start the journey of diversifying your supply chain? For supply chain managers, corporate leaders, and even the Biden administration, the journey to a regionalized, risk-adjusted supply chain network strategy begins with mapping your supplier network. While historically it’s been costly for companies to develop and maintain an accurate map of their supply chain, today, with the right partners, the process can be much more streamlined and efficient. Rapidly evolving technology, cloud adoption, and enterprise networks have made mapping cost effective, scalable, and rapidly achievable. What’s more, the new generation of software companies providing mapping capabilities go far beyond what could be accomplished with emails, phone calls, and spreadsheets.
Multi-tier visibility into the entire supply chain—which includes second and third tier suppliers and goes down to the part level—can help identify the most optimal supply chain design. This is because mapping provides a complete picture of the current supply chain. It can also provide visibility into any alternate sites within the network that might be available and where parts and raw materials could be sourced.
The visibility that mapping provides may show to you that it is possible to move your supply chain without having to switch suppliers. Imagine if you mapped your tier one, two, and three suppliers in China. What you’d likely find is that 30% of them have manufacturing sites outside of China.6 Instead of onboarding new suppliers, which is extremely labor and cost intensive, you’d be able to easily shift to an alternate location with minimal disruption.
A sense of urgency
We need to start approaching supply chain regionalization with a sense of urgency, as regionalization is the first step toward addressing the risks and vulnerabilities affecting our supply chains.
However, this shift to more regional supply chains will not be easy. It will take significant investment and cooperation across both private industry and the public sphere. It will also take time. It took more than 30 years for China to become the dominant manufacturer to the world. Building this kind of capacity in other countries and regions will also take decades—which is why we need to start designing the supply chain for the next 50 years, now.
1. Patricia Van Arnum, “The U.S. Manufacturing Base: Generics,” DCAT Value Chain Insights (Sept. 8, 2021): https://www.dcatvci.org/features/the-us-api-manufacturing-base-generics
2. Michael J. Alkire, “Three Ways Premier Members are Driving Pharmacy Innovation During COVID-19,” Premier blog (Sept. 28, 2021): https://www.premierinc.com/newsroom/blog/three-ways-premier-members-are-driving-pharmacy-innovation-during-covid-19
5. “United States and Canada Forge Ahead on Critical Minerals Cooperation,” U.S. Department of State media note (July 31, 2021): https://www.state.gov/united-states-and-canada-forge-ahead-on-critical-minerals-cooperation
6. Of the tens of thousands of suppliers that Resilinc maps in China, this percentage is typical.