Managing Supply Chain Woes with Digitalization and Automation

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues have plagued the manufacturing and warehousing industries and, as we close out the year 2023, things are not expected to improve any time soon due to ongoing geopolitical issues, continuing shortages of raw materials, rising transportation and energy costs and more frequent weather events and natural disasters. However, businesses that employ modern digital tools and automation technologies to augment efficiency, accuracy, quality, flexibility, and cost containment will find they are better positioned to manage current supply chain challenges.

Today’s Supply Chain Conditions

Existing disruptions to the supply chain, including bottlenecks in transportation and factories, labor shortages, and inflationary pressures, have combined with current political and weather events to negatively impact access to raw materials, spare parts, and skilled workers, affecting throughput and capacity capabilities – leaving many businesses scrambling to remain competitive, contain costs and get product out the door in a timely fashion. The leading supply chain concerns for manufacturers and warehousers are:

Operational Constraints: Warehousers and manufacturers alike have found themselves in a position where they are unable to fulfill orders due to a lack of raw materials, spare equipment parts and skilled operators, maintenance technicians and manual laborers, creating a situation where operations are unable to meet productivity goals and quality standards or to respond to changes in consumer demand.

Inflationary Pressures: Supply chain disruptions and rising costs of transportation, energy, raw materials and essential spare parts have created a situation where manufacturers and warehousers are forced to significantly reduce operating costs, increase efficiency and enhance quality if they are to continue operating and remain competitive in their industries.

Long lead times and material shortages: Since the onset of the pandemic, manufacturers have had difficulty obtaining raw materials needed to manufacture products, while both manufacturers and warehousers have had difficulty sourcing the spare parts needed for maintaining essential equipment.

3 Ways to Overcome Supply Chain Challenges

Gaining visibility into your own supply chain, establishing a flexible network of raw material suppliers and keeping a complete inventory of essential spare parts are all critical to handling supply chain challenges. Additionally, increasing operational efficiency and flexibility, managing labor shortages and practicing proactive maintenance strategies can help manufacturers reach their productivity goals despite shortages and delays.

Fortunately, the rise of digital technologies and automation can help businesses achieve these goals and remain competitive among their peers. Below are three modern technologies to consider.

  1. Automated Equipment: Automating traditionally manual tasks can help alleviate bottlenecks and streamline workflows in manufacturing, packaging and warehousing operations because it introduces efficiency and speed into the process. Robots and automated assembly, filling, sorting, inspection, material handling, picking and packaging equipment can perform repetitive tasks in a faster, more accurate and more efficient way than human workers. Not only will this address throughput challenges and help compensate for time lost to raw material delays, but it will also enhance product quality as automated equipment provides higher levels of accuracy. The reduced dependence on human laborers will also offset worker shortage issues and reduce costs associated with safety issues, such as injuries caused by repetitive motion tasks, as well as labor and material costs associated with re-work, scrap and wasted product related to human error. In addition, modern collaborative robots are less costly than many other forms of automation and are flexible and easily programmed. This means collaborative robots can be moved around the facility and re-programmed to handle a variety of tasks if the production schedule changes due to fluctuations in consumer demand or changing raw material supplies.
  2. Machine Vision Systems: The integration of machine vision systems and robotics or automation, creates intelligent automation that can process information and make real-time decisions based on pre-set specifications. Not only does this further improve efficiency and productivity but, when combined, machine learning and automation are able to enhance product quality through more accurate inspection, assembly and other activities. Further, machine learning technology can be adapted to provide visual feedback regarding the equipment itself, notifying operators or maintenance that there may be an issue that needs attention in real time so that spare parts may be ordered in advance and repairs may be scheduled. The ability to manage these issues in real time allows businesses to become more efficient, nimble and flexible during operations, while also boosting quality and reducing downtime – all essential cost reduction strategies.
  3. IIoT and Data Analytics: Smart sensors and other IIoT devices, combined with data analytics can also help businesses adapt to supply chain issues. Typically, smart sensors and IIoT-enabled devices are paired with specialized analytical software that transforms collected data into a “digital twin” so it can be used to alert operators in real time about issues with the process or production, allowing quick adjustments before the process goes out of specification. This will help businesses remain efficient and cost effective as there will be less waste and fewer disruptions to the process, while also confirming that product quality remains high. The same technologies can be applied to ensure equipment health. Smart sensors, along with data analytics, can alert operators and maintenance when there is a potential problem with production machinery before failure occurs. These real-time, information-based alerts not only prevent total failure and the costs associated with lost production time, but also allow maintenance crews to obtain spare parts and schedule repairs for a time that does not disrupt production.

By embracing technology, businesses can increase production efficiency and boost capacity to compensate for time lost to supply chain delays of raw materials and spare parts, alleviate the pinch of labor shortages and contain costs to help offset inflation and expenses. As an added bonus, automation, machine vision and smart data analytics can help increase uptime and product quality, further boosting capacity and reducing costs related to equipment failure and scrap, waste and rework. While experts predict that the supply chain may take years to recover, representatives at JHFOSTER can explain how employing modern digital and automation technologies can help manufacturers and warehousers remain competitive despite supply chain challenges.