Brad Greve knew it was just a matter of time before the computer chip shortage disrupting the auto industry had a ripple effect on aluminum manufacturing in Iowa.
Greve and his colleagues at Arconic Davenport Worksâmembers of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105âsupply the Ford F-150 pickup and other vehicles.
Automakers forced to cut production because of the semiconductor crunch scaled back the amount of aluminum they take from the facility, just as Greve expected, posing another potential setback to a plant already fighting to rebound from the COVID-19 recession.
America cannot afford to jeopardize major industries for want of parts.
The nationâs prosperity depends on ensuring the ready availability of all of the raw materials and components that go into the products essential for crises and daily life.
That will mean ramping up domestic production of the semiconductorsânow made largely overseasâthat serve as the âbrainsâ of automobiles, computers, cell phones, communications networks, appliances and life-saving medical equipment.
But it will also require building out supply chains in other industries. For example, America needs to produce titanium sponge for warplanes and satellites, pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines and the bearings that keep elevators and other machinery running.
The failure of just one link in a supply chainâas the semiconductor shortage showsâhas the potential to paralyze huge swaths of the economy. Thatâs why itâs crucial not only to source components on U.S. soil but also to incorporate redundancy into supply lines so that an industry can survive the loss of a single supplier.
âItâs that ripple effect,â said Greve, president of Local 105, recalling the time when a fire at a die-cast parts supplier disrupted production of the F-150. âIf you shut down a car manufacturerâor they canât get one partâyou can affect a whole lot of jobs around the country.â
COVID-19 interrupted computer chip production even as demand for televisions, home computers and other goods soared among consumers locked down in their homes. Now, neither U.S. automakers nor manufacturers of other goods can obtain adequate amounts of the semiconductors they need.
Because of the shortage, carmakers cut shifts and laid off workers. The production cuts come when the nation needs the boost from auto salesâand other items containing semiconductorsâto climb out of the recession.
Although the decreased aluminum shipments havenât resulted in layoffs at Davenport, the automotive supply-chain meltdown couldnât have come at a worse time. When the pandemic curbed air travel last year, airplane manufacturers cut back on the aluminum they get from Arconic.
âAutomotive is what kept us going,â Greve said.
America was once a leader in computer chip manufacturing. But as with many other industries in recent decades, the U.S. frittered away the upper hand while other countries boosted production.
The nationâs share of chip manufacturing capacity fell from 37 percent to 12 percent over the past 30 years. And although demand for chips continues to grow, the U.S. stands to gain only a fraction of the additional capacity currently in the pipeline.
That leaves the country overly reliant on foreign suppliers who can encounter their own production shortfalls, as happened during the pandemic, or who can cut off shipments for political or economic reasons at any time.
âIf youâre going to war with somebody, theyâre not going to sell you anything,â Greve said, noting dependence on overseas supplies threatens the nationâs ability not only to make cars and other consumer goods but also to obtain the chips needed for defense and intelligence purposes.
Although the current crisis centers on semiconductors, neglect of the nationâs manufacturing base decimated Americaâs capacity to produce parts and components for many other industries.
âIt affects everybody,â Libbi Urban, vice president of USW Local 9231, said of hollowed-out supply chains that threaten jobs and access to goods. Because of the semiconductor shortage, automakers now take less of the galvanized steel she and her coworkers make at Cleveland-Cliffsâ New Carlisle, Indiana, Works.
Shortages of medical and safety equipment during the pandemic revealed how much manufacturing power the nation let slip away.
But it wasnât only the finished products, like face masks, America found itself ill-equipped to produce. Makers of hand sanitizer and cleaning products struggled to obtain adequate supplies of the hand pumps and spray triggers made overseas.
âHow much time and money are being lost waiting on overseas companies to get products and supplies to the U.S.?â Urban asked.
President Joe Biden took the first step toward rebuilding manufacturing power with an executive order in February requiring immediate reviews of supply chains for the semiconductor, pharmaceutical, electric-battery and rare earth minerals industries as well as longer-term reviews of other sectors.
But after identifying weaknesses, America needs to implement a strategy for restoring supply lines and ensuring long-term resiliency.
That will include direct investment in U.S. manufacturing facilities, such as the $37 billion Biden proposed to ramp up chip production.
It involves strategically using tax incentives to encourage employers to expand operations and invest in new technology. And it means building strong markets for U.S. products, partly through policies that encourage federal contractors and other companies to buy domestic goods.
Besides cutting shifts, Greve noted, automakers have been trying to weather the semiconductor shortage by allocating chips to their most popular models or leaving vehicles partially completed until chips arrive.
GM even eliminated an important feature, an advanced fuel management system, in some models just to save chips and get vehicles to market.
âWe shouldnât have that happen in this country,â Greve said. âIf we donât make the supplies here, then we have no control.â
This article was produced by theÂ Independent Media Institute.
About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of theÂ United Steelworkers Union (USW).