López-Gómez says no single approach such as reshoring will suit every sector or firm: managers who are now busy redesigning factories for social distancing and planning for potential new outbreaks of the virus should also be devoting time to a cost-benefit analysis of their longer-term options. And that analysis must put greater priority than ever on assessing and mitigating the risks of supply chain vulnerability.
“Think about the next emergency, which could be climate-related or a nuclear accident or a second round of pandemic,” he adds. “You might find a potential supplier just up the road that is more expensive than your foreign supplier, but you need to balance that higher cost with increased resilience, lower vulnerability to trade tensions and currency fluctuations… and things like the ecological benefits of buying more locally.
“Often there is an information failure because you have not explored your options. It is about finding the best practice for your type of business and mapping your supply options with better visibility of the whole supply chain.”
Dr Sam Roscoe, a researcher and lecturer in operations and supply chain management at the University of Sussex, says that adjustments to supply chains should not be driven by a knee-jerk drive for nationalism or self-reliance.
“The aim is resilience, not national self-reliance. If you move all your supply sources to the UK you are not just looking at the probability of higher costs, you are also putting your eggs in one basket and making yourself vulnerable to UK-specific risks,” he explains.
A wiser approach for many businesses, according to Roscoe, would be to set up parallel and independent supply chains, so that 20% to 30% of production might be based in the UK and the rest overseas.
“That way you can ramp up one supply chain when a crisis happens elsewhere,” he says. “Yes, there are higher costs with duplication, but you are buying resilience and risk mitigation. You are not as susceptible to the whims of any one government, nor to problems that occur in one location or one distribution system.”
Roscoe says the cost-cutting strategy of pursuing economies of scale by centralising all manufacturing in huge facilities – often in China – had already been losing popularity among procurement executives and corporate risk officers even before the pandemic.
“That model is cheap but it has a lot of issues, because if that one centre stops, your whole company stops,” Roscoe says. “That is why we were already seeing a dispersion of supply chains, moving away from having one big centre to having regional hubs, say Mexico to serve the US, Poland to serve Europe and somewhere in Asia for that region.
“Now is a very good time for even small and medium-sized companies to think about who their suppliers are, where they are located and do they have dual suppliers, because the low-cost centralised model is just too risky.”