American manufacturing has thrived for a mighty long time by standing on the shoulders of some incredible civil engineering. Not a whole lot of people really appreciate that – although I suspect no one in the military takes American civil engineering for granted.
Eisenhower said, "You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics." And logistics is won or lost with civil engineering.
I bring this up because of the number of manufacturers who ignore the old military maxim – ‘Amateurs study strategy while professionals study logistics’ – in launching their offshore outsourcing strategies, only to be undermined by poor logistics.
Next Thursday is the 151st anniversary of the first ship – the steamer Illinois – to pass through the Soo Locks, connecting Lake Superior with the lower Great Lakes. More important, the locks connected the vast iron ore ranges in Minnesota with the coal fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, making the steel industry what it is, and with it the auto industry. Better than 11,000 boats (they don’t call them ‘ships’ on the Great Lakes even though some of them like the Walter J. McCarthy make the Titanic look small by comparison) will haul over 90 million tons of cargo through the locks this year.
A week later, on June 29, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Federal Highway Act of 1956 will take place. Eisenhower was the driving force for it, along with the auto makers, and it is an overblown version of Germany’s autobahn which very much impressed the General during WWII. It has almost 50,000 miles of at least four lane highway connecting the entire continental US – the autobahn X 7. When the last traffic light was removed from I-90 in Wallace, Idaho fifteen years ago, it became possible to move any load between any two major point in the U.S. without stopping.
And less than two weeks from now, July 1 marks the 144th anniversary of the date Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, authorizing the Union Pacific Railroad to start at Omaha and build west, and the Central Pacific Railroad to start at Sacramento and build east, racing to meet each other. They built almost 700 miles of railroad through and over mountains and deserts, connecting California with the east.
These were all engineering projects of staggering proportions, that are largely taken for granted today. The idea that any load of anything – no matter the size or the weight – can be moved from anywhere to anywhere in the United States cheaply and in a matter of days has been a fact of manufacturing life for so long that we often fail to appreciate our incredible logistical resource.
The Egyptians devoted their engineering resources to pyramids and the Chinese built their Great Wall. I don’t want to take anything away from either incredible feat or to demean their cultural priorities, but the great economic empires were built when engineering was devoted to transportation and logistics – the Roman road and bridge network that crisscrossed Europe and the Middle East, the British maritime investment that ruled the seas, and the American transportation system that will be celebrated in the next few weeks.
Before packing up and heading for China, India, Viet Nam, Malaysia or Brazil to cash in on all of that cheap labor, an executive with an outsourcing strategy would be wise to think long and hard about the implications of doing business outside of the most effective logistical infrastructure the world has ever seen. Give some thought to why the military folks know very well that a strategy is easy to devise, but the logistics to pull it off are often anything but easy.