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Subcontracting: increasing complexity and interdependence

News International-French

23 Apr 2011

It is interesting to see how the concept of subcontracting has changed over time and how it continues to change. As subcontracting has developed, the prime manufacturers are becoming increasingly dependent on their partners.

(Published on January-February 2009 – JEC Magazine #46)


The evolution of subcontracting may be compared to that of animal and plant cells. The first ever living creatures – bacteria or singlecell algae – are independent but very simple life forms. At the other end of the scale, mammals have extraordinary capacities, but all their cells are interdependent. The neurons need the cells of the heart, and the opposite also applies. If one type is missing, then the entire organism dies.


Industry has followed a similar path of change. Yet as manufactured objects have become increasingly complex and/or need to be supplied more and more quickly, everyone involved has to be ultraspecialised in order to be as efficient and productive as possible in their assigned tasks. The corollary of this is that it clearly becomes increasingly difficult to take onboard every aspect of a product’s manufacturing, both from a technical and from a financial point of view.



Industrial subcontracting is the process by which a client (the prime manufacturer) asks another company (the subcontractor) to produce specific services or products. The prime manufacturer is alone responsible for the final marketing of the product and takes full responsibility for the after-sales service.


There are two broad types of subcontractor: "capacity" subcontractors and "speciality" subcontractors. Subcontracting is dubbed "capacity" when the company that is the prime manufacturer is itself equipped with facilities for manufacturing a product and yet calls on the services of another company. Many TV-set manufacturers use this type of subcontracting.


Subcontracting is dubbed "speciality" when the prime manufacturer calls in a "specialist" who has the equipment, the facilities and the skills required (like Ratier-Figeac for engine vanes).


Supplier to subcontractor to partner

We have seen by analogy that the natural tendency in the evolution of subcontracting is towards interdependence due to greater degrees of specialisation. The coordinator or end manufacturer, who is still styled OEM (for Original Equipment Manufacturer), was previously at the centre of a circle of suppliers (see Fig. 1). As such, it was a lot easier for the OEM to substitute one supplier for another. In a more specialised structure, the OEM is at the summit of a pyramid where it is far more difficult to replace any given one of the elements. Technically this is true in absolute terms, and it is further underpinned by the sharing of investments in very expensive projects between the OEM and its suppliers near the top of the pyramid.


Sometimes, relations between the contracting parties evolve towards greater cooperation, or even a partnership, when the subcontractor takes responsibility for an entire function and not just the manufacturing of an isolated part. In this case, the subcontractor becomes a system supplier (see Fig. 2).


The pyramid as the sole paradigm?

Let us look more closely at our own industry. Composites are complex by their very nature. Upstream, raw material suppliers are very specialised (fibres, matrices, etc.). Do they still warrant the term of "supplier"? The aerospace industry sees carbon fibre manufacturers more as partners than as mere suppliers. They are a key element, a vital foundation stone. Downstream, the manufacturing of composites requires specialists. They are either manufactured by specialised companies, or else they constitute part of the core business of the OEM, such as is the case in boatbuilding or, more recently, in aerospace. Yacht manufacturers do not subcontract the manufacturing of their hulls. The largest stones in the pyramid do not get moved. Our industry is therefore for the most part a keystone in the pyramids of the main user sectors.