Supply chain challenges continue to add hiccups into smooth operations

April 19, 2021
How long can your company ride out a supply shock without shutting down?

I was attending a professional event when the COVID lockdowns hit. The handshakes and group meals which kicked off on Monday had changed by Thursday into elbow bumps and social distancing. The next 52 weeks have been an exercise in patience, persistence, and sleuthing down products that suddenly were in very short supply.

From the Editor

This article is part of our monthly From the Editor column. Read more from Thomas Wilk.

Like everyone, I was surprised by how quickly paper towels and cleaning wipes disappeared from shelves. The product shortage that caught me off guard though was vitamin C supplements. For years, I’d been drinking a packet a day of raspberry Emergen-C to ward off colds; when shopping, I was spoiled for choice with several brands and flavors available, none of them ever out of stock. Then, without warning, it was impossible to find any brand or flavor. It was a little thing, but for me it came to symbolize all the industry challenges we’ve been coping with during the past year.

This month, we report on what we anticipate will be our last survey focusing on the pandemic year. The March manufacturing PMI stands at 64.7%, suggesting that many plants have overcome many COVID-related operational challenges from the past year. Our survey suggests the same, with 60% of respondents saying they are running pretty much the same as in normal times.

However, it is pretty widely accepted that supply chain challenges are still being worked through. A new Harvard Business Review article by Prof. Willy Shih captures the specific post-COVID supply chain challenge that is now facing plant teams: “It’s vital to ascertain how long your company could ride out a supply shock without shutting down, and how quickly an incapacitated node could recover or be replaced by alternate sites when an entire industry faces a disruption-related shortage.” Once you’ve identified the risks in your supply chain, Shih writes, “you can use that information to address them by either diversifying your sources or stockpiling key materials or items.”

This is easier said than done, especially when you and your plant may already have worked hard to optimize stockroom inventory as well as negotiate supplier contracts that deliver the parts you need, when you need them. Then there is the issue of your competitors all trying to access the same parts that you’re after, some of which may be in short supply.

However, respondents to our survey identified a way to tackle supply chain challenges. Both last June and this past March, when asked if the pandemic had revealed a pressing need in the area of maintenance and reliability, the top response was a “stronger planning and scheduling program.”

This line of work also attracts resilient people. When asked how flexible teams had been toward adjusting to changes this past year, 70% said much or all of the workforce was receptive to necessary changes due to the pandemic.

Stay safe, and I look forward to seeing you again at the next industry event.

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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