Supply Chain Problems Continue: This Time it is Personal

Picture of Adam Bahret
Adam Bahret

Supply chain issues have affected our lives greatly over the past few years. We can’t get raw materials to make parts, we can’t get parts to make products, and we can’t get household items to live day to day—e.g., toilet paper. For a while, it seemed like we had recovered. But let me tell you…It’s still really bad.

I can’t get the engine computer for the Alphabet Engine project!!! Seriously, I’m going crazy here. I should have had it already this past Spring. My most recent update is that I can expect delivery in Spring of 2023!

I mean, how far has society unraveled where engine computers are back ordered by a year? There are solutions to not having toilet paper but what are we supposed to do about this? I spent forever finding the type of computer I would need; It was really hard. My big challenge was that I am running a system that has the very uncommon feature of two separate drive-by-wire (DBW) systems (servos) The left side bank of three cylinders has one and the right side bank has the other. So I need what are effectively two servo controllers integrated into the computer.

I can’t just grab any old engine computer and start programming. I don’t know of many production cars that have more than a single throttle body. Almost all eight, ten and twelve cylinder motors have only one. I have six throttle bodies, for six cylinders, that I am driving with two servo systems. It’s a weird setup, one might even say overly complicated, but I have my reasons.

Did I have to do it this way? No. The car’s current setup (factory) is a single linkage controlled  throttle body. If I had done DBW in the same single throttle body configuration I would have had an engine computer back in March. But none of what I am doing with Alphabet Engine is necessary, this is an exploration of engineering. So basically R&D. Which brings me to my point.

What do we often decide in R&D that really constrains (read “screws”) us later? I don’t mean simple things like not thinking forward or being careless, I mean what do we do that constrains us unnecessarily so we can’t be flexible when things change? A lesson we all learned in 2020.

How many of you work in product development programs that came to a screeching halt because of supply chain issues? Did everyone just raise their hands? Ok, now how many of you, looking back, can see solutions to those supply chain issues? If only you had known this flexibility would be needed, you might have made considerations for it back in the good times of 2018.

The design and manufacturing world was still high on Just in Time (JIT) style of manufacturing in 2018. The goal with JIT has always been to have no stock and as much accountability for all aspects of components and assemblies on the suppliers. Many automotive manufacturers go so far as to have the suppliers own a portion of the assembly line. The manufacturer never owns or handles the parts. They take ownership once they are in the final product.

During the supply chain crisis, there was one stand out example of a very quick recovery to the supply shortage, Tesla. You probably read about it. When the chip shortage hit, Tesla took a very interesting approach to solving it. Instead of fighting to get their share of the available chips, they looked around at the chip market, found older generation chips that were readily available, and then rewrote their software so those chips could be used.

But they didn’t stop there; They didn’t just say, “good save, now let’s go back to how we were doing things.” They are still making big changes to allow control and flexibility in all areas of production going forward. I can’t say for sure but I would suspect that they may write code now (or have parallel paths of development) that can accommodate different chips. I also know that Tesla is going deeper and deeper into their own chip design and manufacturing.

Tesla is also looking to purchase the mines that extract the raw materials for their products. They may end up being in control of the entire supply chain from digging it out of the ground to placing the part in the car. The only supplier that will be in their chain that they don’t control will be the companies that make the mining equipment. It wouldnt’ surprise me though if they start making electric bulldozers and digging equipment. Wait? The Boring company.

So, two lessons. The first is to be dynamic in how you handle current issues. Don’t just go at them head on. The second is to create bandwidth for initiatives that protect against liabilities in the future.

How will this play out for Alphabet Engine? Well I’m under NDA and probably shouldn’t tell you this, but there was a high level executive meeting at Alphabet Engine Inc. and the fallout was pretty hard. The engine control leader was sentenced to listen to Maria Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on endless repeat. That started back in September, so he’s been subjected to it for a whole two months earlier than the general public. That kid is going to be totally bonkers by December 26th. The supply chain guy was put on a wooden raft that was then set afire with a blazing arrow. The CEO was forced to resign and he can’t have his golden parachute (which was mostly those chocolate chip cookies with walnuts). So yeah, it got ugly.

If Alphabet Engine Inc. had followed the above advice, two things would have happened. The first is that when the supply chain issue became apparent, which was when the AE project started, they would have reconsidered the option of taking a generic control computer (possibly a robotics computer) and modifying it for this application. This was totally doable with many cheap systems. They (I) didn’t because it would have required more engineering work up front. In hindsight, this decision would have allowed for more design flexibility and it would have been ready many months ago.

The second is that they (I) would have started to line up all remaining parts and materials that were going to be purchased and checked on their availability. This would have been the “put some resources aside to mitigate future issues” effort. Now, there is surely going to be something else I can’t get in the near future. Maybe it will just be a simple thing like high temp oil resistant wire, but nonetheless it will mean another delay. Engines don’t run unless you have all the parts.

As for that second hypothetical, as of right now, as I am writing this, have I done that yet? Nope.

Will there be a follow-up article on this in about three months where I bitch about supply chain again? Probably.


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