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Is costly tooling an asset or liability?

If you build cars, you own big production equipment. Lots of equipment. Assembly plants, engine plants, transmission plants, stamping plants.

It's a very expensive game. Takes billions just to become a niche player. But once established, the economies of scale become a big entry barrier. Any newcomer better bring tons of capital and help from the government of a good-sized country.

So all that tooling is an impregnable fortress. Or is it?

What if it's another Maginot Line, France's elaborate 1940 fixed fortifications that the Germans simply outflanked?

Fixed defenses have two problems: They breed complacency, and then the stronger the defense, the more likely opponents will go around it.

Want a non-military analogy? Look at city newspapers. In their prime, buying a printing press for big daily runs was expensive, but once bought it was a real entry barrier for any new competitor. Some newspaper critics see that as a blind spot that doomed them as their business model changed.

The argument goes like this: Because they owned presses, newspapers couldn't, or wouldn't, imagine any solution that didn't involve running that press six hours a day. Press-free rivals didn't care if they used video, e-mail, webcasts or Web sites.

If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

So here's the question for the auto industry establishment: If you own expensive powertrain and assembly plants, does every transportation solution look like a car?

What's clear is that the auto industry's four-wheel, liquid-fuel, four-sizes-of-car business model is changing. After more than a century of refining the same product, can the industry adapt quickly?

The realities of megacities, traffic density, fuel- and resource-supply limitations, climate change and emerging markets are reshaping the industry.

How much further does the business model have to change before that massive production investment switches from fortress to prison?

I see all that massive tooling as still an asset. But I can imagine circumstances where it would become a liability.

I wonder how many in the industry could adapt.

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