COVID-19 has officially been declared a pandemic, creating serious side effects as it has shut down industries and disrupted global supply chains. While everyone’s top priority is to stop the spread of the virus, this moment in time represents the chance to evaluate current supply chains and determine where to invest in new processes and technologies that can help mitigate the most serious disruptions. This might seem counterproductive given the economic signs that indicate the economy is heading into a recession; in the long-term, however, supply chains must be made more durable.
With emerging technologies such as 3D printing, blockchain, IoT, and automation, companies can build more resilient supply chains that can diminish the threat of black swan events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. They can also provide additional benefits such as safer work environments and lower operating costs. Here are three lessons learned that can help supply chain managers reduce risk in the future.
3D Printing Means Less Reliance on Single-Source Components
Factories shutting down due to COVID-19 creates a huge problem for companies that rely on several single sources of crucial components. Similar events occurred in 2011 as a result of the Japanese tsunami: Companies were stuck as they could no longer get specialized components created by individual vendors. Although convincing vendors to move away from the business model might be difficult, companies can instead focus on building those specialized components in-house using 3D printing.
This technology is often viewed as a gimmick, good only for creating figurines or other minor items for consumers. On an industrial scale, it has the potential to be revolutionary. It requires more focus on developing the right software and materials science to accelerate this transformation, but it has the potential to eliminate the logistical issues surrounding availability, obsolete design, and elusive specialized components. In the event of a disruption, components built in-house increases the durability of the supply chain.
A single 3D printed item will cost the same as bulk manufactured 3D products, meaning there’s no need to reach a certain threshold to save costs. This also lowers costs that can be passed on to customers and make a company more competitive.
The IoT Reduces Needs for Potential Contamination
Health officials have warned that COVID-19 can remain on surfaces for several days. This turns typical supply chain tasks that require manual human inspection into opportunities to spread infection. The Internet of Things (IoT) can help reduce these tasks by using sensor data to automatically collect information and give workers the information they need without the risk of spreading contamination.
For example, in fleet management, IoT sensors provide the ability to monitor the workforce, fleet locations, and conditions in real time. This automates some reporting and inspection processes — improving operational efficiency, reducing costs, controlling asset damage, reducing damage claims, and meeting regulatory reporting requirements, and significantly improving customer satisfaction.
Additionally, when transferring goods from freight to a factory, workers won’t need to manually check if all cargo is offloaded or if the correct components (and correct number of those components) are delivered when machines can automatically relay that information.
Automation and Robotics Also Reduces Infection Opportunities
Although white-collar professionals have the chance to work from home during a pandemic, there aren’t similar opportunities for workers within the supply chain who are responsible for ensuring the physical transfer of goods. However, that doesn’t mean they have to be at risk of spreading infection. Companies should audit the technology investments in infrastructure to understand what can be automated and where robots can be utilized to minimize human contact for a contagion scenario.
For example, autonomous vehicles and drones could be a replacement to humans in last-mile delivery, which puts both consumers and delivery workers at risk of spreading infection. Automation is also helpful on the warehousing front, as there are already entire warehouses where only robots roam. Of course, not every task can be performed by a robot, so companies will need to invest in cobot (collaborative robot) solutions where a human works mainly with a robot to accomplish nuanced tasks outside their capabilities. These scenarios are easier to deploy than pure robotics and require less “rip and replace” for existing infrastructure.
An Opportunity for Discovery
As businesses adjust to a new but temporary reality of a COVID-19 world, they’re learning several lessons to use once the crisis subsides. Companies are discovering that workers needn’t always be in the office to be the most efficient — teleconferences can be just as valuable as face-to-face meetings.
Likewise, supply chain managers have the opportunity to determine how to best upgrade processes and technologies so they too can realize new benefits. For more information or to talk with our experts about how we can help you reduce supply chain risks, click here to request a meeting.