This LA Times story about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (so called because it’s still a dream – let’s get the last drop from that joke before it goes into service) and the role of outsourcing is fascinating. It is partly built on a paper by a senior Boeing engineer which makes among other things, this point:
Among the least profitable jobs in aircraft manufacturing, he pointed out, is final assembly — the job Boeing proposed to retain. But its subcontractors would benefit from free technical assistance from Boeing if they ran into problems, and would hang on to the highly profitable business of producing spare parts over the decades-long life of the aircraft. Their work would be almost risk-free, Hart-Smith observed, because if they ran into really insuperable problems they would simply be bought out by Boeing.
Even in its own financial terms, the whole thing didn’t make sense, because the job of welding together the subassemblies and hooking up the wires doesn’t account for much of the profit involved. Further, the supposedly high-margin intellectual-property element of the business – the research, development, and design of the plane – is only a profit centre after it’s been built. Until they’re done, it requires enormous amounts of investment to get right. The outsourcers were expecting the lowest-margin element of the company, assembly, to carry the costs of developing new products. Whether they were funded with equity or with debt, this implies that the systems integrator model, for aircraft at least, fundamentally restricts innovation.
This is one of the points I’d like to bring out here. Hart-Smith’s paper – you can read it here – is much stronger on this than the LA Times was willing to be. It’s a fascinating document in other ways, too. For a start, the depth of outsourcing Boeing tried to achieve with the 787 is incompatible with many of the best practices used in other industries. Because the technical interfaces invariably become organisational and economic ones, it’s hard to guarantee that modules from company X will fit with the ones from Y, and if they don’t, the adjustment mechanism is a lawsuit at the financial level, but at the technical level, it’s rework. The dodgy superblock has to be re-worked to get it right, and this tends to land up with the manufacturer. Not only does this defeat the point of outsourcing in the first place, it obviates the huge importance of avoiding expensive rework.
Further, when anything goes wrong, the cost migrates remorselessly to the centre. The whole idea of systems integration and outsourcing is that the original manufacturer is just a collection of contracts, the only location where all the contracts overlap. Theoretically, as near to everything as possible has been defined contractually and outsourced, except for a final slice of the job that belongs to the original manufacturer. This represents, by definition, all the stuff that couldn’t be identified clearly enough to write a contract for it, or that was thought too risky/too profitable (depends on which end you look at it) for anyone to take the contract on. If this was finance, rather than industry, it would be the equity tranche. One of the main reasons why you can’t contract for something, of course, is that you don’t know it’s going to happen. So the integrator essentially ends up holding all the uncertainty, in so far as they can’t push it off onto the customer or the taxpayer.
This also reminded me a little of Red Plenty – one of the problems is precisely that it’s impossible to ensure that all the participants’ constraints are mutually compatible. There are serious Pareto issues. There may be something like an economic law that implies that, given that there are some irreducible uncertainties in each contractual relationship, which can be likened to unallocated costs, they flow downhill towards the party with the least clearly defined role. You could call it Harrowell’s U-Bend. (Of course, in the macroeconomy, the party with the least well defined role is government – who you gonna call?)
Anyway, Hart-Smith’s piece deserves a place in the canon of what could be termed Sarcastic Economics.
I suspect that the problems he identifies have wider consequences in the economy. Given that it’s always easier to produce more or less of a given good than it is to produce something different, the degree to which it’s possible to reallocate capital has a big impact on how quickly it’s possible to recover from a negative shock, and how bad the transition process is. I would go so far as to argue that it’s most difficult to react to an economic shock by changing products, it’s next most difficult to react by producing more (you could be at a local maximum and need to invest more capital, for example), and it’s easiest to react by producing less, and that therefore there’s a structural bias towards deflationary adjustment.
Hart-Smith’s critique holds that the whole project of retaining product development, R&D, and commercial functions like sales in the company core, and contracting everything else out actually weakens precisely those functions. Rather than being able to develop new products quickly by calling on outside resources, the outside resources suck up the available capital needed to develop new products. And the U-bend effect drags the costs of inevitable friction towards them. Does this actually reduce the economy’s ability to reallocate capital at the macrolevel? Does it strengthen the deflationary forces in capitalism?
Interestingly, there’s also a presentation from Airbus knocking about which gives their views on the Dreamliner fiasco. Tellingly, they seem to think that it was Boeing’s wish to deskill its workforce as far as possible that underlies a lot of it. Which is ironic, coming from an enormous aerospace company. There’s also a fascinating diagram showing that no major assembly in the 787 touches one made by the same company or even the same Boeing division – exactly what current theories of the firm would predict, but then, if it worked we wouldn’t be reading this.
A question to the reader: 1) How would you apply this framework to the cost overruns on UK defence projects? 2) Does any of this remind you of rail privatisation?