History Column

“No Clear Substitutes”: Supply Chain Interruptions and How Engineers Approached Them in the Past

By Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center

Supply chain problems and their complex causes have been getting extensive coverage recently. Supply chain (sometimes also called resource chain) disruptions and price chokepoints are not new, especially in the fields of technology. Alternating current distribution systems became preferred over direct current, in part because a French syndicate gained a near monopoly over the world’s copper supply in the late 1880s. By 1887, the syndicate had forced the price up nearly 70 percent. Alternating current systems used smaller conductors and thus less copper. Britain’s early lead in undersea telegraph cable construction in the 1800s was accelerated by the British monopoly on gutta-percha (a tree sap used as insulation).

The past is often a guide to the future. The IEEE History Center’s Engineering & Technology History Wiki (ETHW) has a topic area on supply chains, as well as oral histories in which technologists describe supply chain problems and solutions to them. A common theme is the need for good communication. A number of these oral histories emphasized that supply chains are about people as much as they are about materials.


Life Senior IEEE Member James V. Boone presents observations on resource chains in his first-hand history here.

“We all thought that we had to spend far too much of our time working the ‘resource chains.’ That applied to those chains inside of our specific organizations, but also those up through the legislative and executive branches of government. We had many opinions about the reasons for this. It is a ‘natural’ problem in all areas, but what are the main differences that make the use of advanced technologies in this particular area so difficult to ‘sell’?

“Our resource chains are filled with people of different backgrounds, and different talents, and these people change frequently…We must keep our attention on this situation and try to gain the confidence and understanding of enough of the people in those chains so that they can be our advocates when needed. We must also remember that we have serious competition for resources and their decisions are not easy to make.”


Alma Martinez Fallon also emphasizes communication across many departments, “Supply chain — at the time it was called purchasing. I was given that opportunity to go to that special assignment. I worked very closely with the purchasing buyers when I was an engineer, as well as a supervisor in engineering. So they placed me with the materials team, represent engineering on the materials team to try to do better synchronizing processes, communication, data between engineering and supply chain…I was exposed to production, to the things that were occurring, the processes, the production folks, planning folks.”

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Alex King, Director of the Critical Materials Institute at the Ames Laboratory, addresses the question in mathematical terms. “We need to be worried about materials for which we have no clear substitutes and for which we only have a single source, no matter where that source may be. Plot the sort of essentialness of an element, if you like. How hard would it be to do without this element on the vertical axis and the question of how hard is it to get this element on the horizontal axis. It turns out that how hard it is to get an element is almost directly related to the number of sources.”


Richard Koch, one of the pioneers behind the first transistor radio, describes the difficulties of sourcing components for a device that was essentially different from anything that had preceded it. “The breadboard had electrolytics in it, so I called up the company and said, “I need some samples. Would you send purchasing a quote?” and whatever. They said, “Oh, we’re not going to make those in production yet. These are just an engineering operationI got hold of purchasing and they ran down a source…We were probably the first high-volume manufacturer that ever used them.

Koch’s oral history goes on to observe, “One of the facts of life is that the faster you make a product, the less time you have to spend money. It’s cheaper, simply. It’s a strange point of view, but it’s the case. If you have plenty of time, you’re examining a lot of things and you’re trying a lot of different ways. You’re deciding something faster when you don’t have that lead time always. So we think that it’s simply cheaper to — ah, how to put that? We are rationalizing the development process right now and we think that we can get a lot out of that. We get faster results, we get more results, we get better results, and people seem to be very happy with it, because it’s easier to understand the decisions — if you have a process over three years, it’s very difficult to keep the energy and the philosophy at a high level. The shorter time you do it in, the more enthusiastic the group works. So there seems to be a lot of advantage in shortening up the time.”


IBM addressed the supply chain problem by manufacturing some of their components themselves. “At the same time that IBM undertook to design and build System/360, it entered into the components business in order to assure an adequate supply of components and to participate in future advances in technology.” However, even the in-house solution could not prevent all problems. Ramping up production between 1964 and 1965 from 6 million modules to 56 million resulted in production imperfections. “Scientists brought in from the Research Division worked with the engineers to solve what was found to be a metallurgical problem, and they succeeded. By 1966 production of SLT modules in the IBM plant in East Fishkill had reached 90 million per year.”


Want to Contribute?
Interested in contributing your own First-Hand History or topic article on some aspect of tech history? The ETHW welcomes technologists to share their experiences and knowledge using https://ethw.org/Create. There is an easy password/account setup choice in the top menu bar.

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Robert Colburn

Robert Colburn is research coordinator at the IEEE History Center. For more articles by History Center staff, visit their publications page. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

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