If you have anything at all to do with shooting sports, even having a family member or friend who's a devotée, you've heard about the ammo shortages. Pretty much all the popular and some not-so-popular rifle and pistol calibers have become scarce and pricey. Causes ascribed to the ammo drought range from dark government conspiracy to war stockpiling to metals shortages. The truth is likely more prosaic.
This post at the 'Books, Bikes and Boomsticks' blog lays out some of the basics of ammo production and the current supply and demand situation. To simplify (read the post for details), there's a fairly fixed supply capacity, some portion of which can be converted amongst calibers. There's been a spike in retail demand since last fall, probably caused by a combination of fears of civil disorder in the wake of economic collapse and/or moves against ammo supplies by the leftist Obama administration.
This all brought back memories of a little simulation that I've encountered in the past, the Beer Game, which was originated at the MIT Sloan School back in the '60s. Details of the game are given here, but basically it simulates the production, distribution and sale of beer, from manufacturer through distributor, wholesaler, and finally retailer. Players take on one of these roles, and the only communication allowed amongst them is placing their next week's order for fulfillment from up the chain. There's a scoring function that penalizes for holding inventory, but even more for not having stock on hand to fill an order.
After setting up the players and roles and initial inventories, the moderator (or computer, these days) does exactly one more thing: Presents a sharp spike in demand to the player representing the retailer.
Chaos ensues. Every time. It's not giving anything away to say that the result is always gross oscillation in both inventory levels and ordering, which gets worse and worse as demand is aggregated up the supply chain. That dynamic instability is built into the system structure, and all it takes is a sharp transient in the input to kick it off.
I first played this as a graduate student in systems science in the late 70s, and the experience stuck with me. I encountered it again in the late 90s as a participant in an executive workshop, and even though I knew what was about to happen, there was nothing that could be done about it without breaking the information exchange rules of the game. It did make it a lot funnier, however.
The point, of course, is that rule about limited information exchange. After you've been through a session of the Beer Game, you're not going to argue about the value of visibility of inventories and pull-through rates throughout supply and distribution chains. (There's also a meta-message: The best people, with the best practices and data, will still end up SOL if they're working in a system that's structured contrary to their goals.)
Now go back and read the blog post about ammo supply, if you didn't already. Once you get outside of Wal-Mart, and maybe Cabela's, it's a fragmented sector of small retail gun shops, with little to no IT infrastructure and working through at least one level of distribution, along with a smattering of specialist online vendors. Which all got hit with a demand spike back last fall. In the case of the ammo shortages, it's neither incompetence nor conspiracy, it's the nature of the beast. (And maybe some bright entrepreneur can figure out how to make a buck by fixing it.)
<PSA> Boom first, beer later. </PSA>