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A tale of two earthquakes: In Japan, some lessons learned, others deferred

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Just three days later, Japan was rocked by the latest temblor. The Feb. 13 earthquake injured hundreds, rather than killing thousands as in 2011, and its meager tsunami was measured in centimeters, not meters. But at magnitude 7.1, it still packed a potent punch.

Renesas, the chipmaker whose Naka factory was hammered a decade earlier, was once again in the crosshairs. This time, the Naka plant temporarily lost power, and the company was forced to suspend operations to confirm factory safety and the status of its fragile clean room operations.

Renesas restarted front-end manufacturing in its clean room on Feb. 16, but the company wasn’t able to resume its full pre-quake production pace until a week after the disaster.

Bigger problems loomed at a Hitachi Astemo factory also in the quake zone. Damaged by the shaking, it suspended operations on Feb. 15 and didn’t resume shipments until Feb. 22. Japanese media reported that a power outage torpedoed production of suspension systems.

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Toyota, despite having dodged the chip shortage, was now among the worst affected. It had to suspend output at nine plants in Japan for several days. The downtime hit 14 of its 28 lines in the home market and affected nameplates such as the Toyota RAV4, C-HR and Harrier crossovers, and several Lexus models, including the LS and IS sedans and NX, UX and RX crossovers.

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Toyota said the shutdowns would dent output by about 31,000 vehicles.

Nissan also felt the blow; it suspended production at two plants for two days.

Automakers in Japan concede that bulletproofing supply chains is an imperfect science. But analysts say today’s interruptions would be even worse without the lessons of 2011.

“The industry responded very well,” McKinsey’s Luczak said of the chip shortage. “And it was clearly a result of 10 years back, and that increased transparency helped them to react much faster. I felt the players were doing exceptionally well around the globe in how they managed.”

Indeed, each new upheaval brings fresh insight, said Keita Yamanashi, Nissan’s general manager for business continuity planning. “Every time a natural disaster occurs, we go through a review and identify some challenges we faced. Then, we apply that to the next disaster,” he said.

To be sure, Japanese automakers have made big strides in reinforcing the supply chain in the home market. But they also are global players with a growing international supply base.

The next big challenge will be replicating the Japan safety net overseas.

Naoto Okamura contributed to this report.

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