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Achieving an agile supply chain

Supply chain resilience has never been more important

Supply chain resilience has never been more important.

Global markets are apt to change at a moment’s notice, often a result of dramatic shifts in consumer demand and availability of products – as was seen during 2020, with the restriction in component supply due to a global lockdown. These sudden changes in demand can affect manufacturers in every sector.

The inevitability is that, regardless of such changes, retailers and consumers will expect manufacturers to continue to deliver the same quality and variety of products, often also demanding a greater range of stock-keeping units (SKUs), which are specific items stored in a specific location, for either smaller or bulk sizes.

This impacts not just production and packaging, but also end-to-end management of the supply chain, particularly downstream traceability.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already demonstrated that those with supply chain agility who are ready and able to respond to such shifts can benefit significantly versus their competition.

As the effects of the global pandemic are expected to last well into 2021, adding contingency and agility into supply chain operations has become a priority for many businesses.

Supply chain spotlight

Supply chain disruption is nothing new. Weather events, earthquakes, explosions and even the CO2 shortage of 2018 have all been known to cause disruptions to the normal flow of goods and services – and the majority of companies have some form of contingency planning in place to cope with the unexpected.

The global reach and extended duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has created unprecedented challenges for many businesses.

Prices vary not only from day to day but also increasingly hour to hour, particularly in online retail, which has seen a massive increase in volume as access to – and staffing of – stores became difficult. Similarly, lead times across a global supply chain are very hard to predict, demanding continuous modification to production schedules.

Limited access to raw materials and product packaging in the face of a huge increase in demand has put further strain on manufacturers – with some major food and beverage suppliers struggling to obtain labels, bottles and other packaging materials.

In response to this challenge, and to keep up with demand, some companies have streamlined processes by limiting SKUs: reducing product lines and minimising customisation in order to improve production line efficiency and manage their supply chains more effectively.

While others have sought to fundamentally redefine their supply chains by exploring near-shore and local suppliers for both primary and contingency roles.

Changing customer behaviour

Throughout the pandemic, customer buying models have also evolved, necessitating further changes to manufacturing operations.

The global lockdown encouraged many individuals to embrace e-commerce for the first time – raising the need for companies to
flex dynamically between bricks and mortar and e-commerce sales.

Importantly, packaging requirements for e-commerce shipments are very different from standard retail – with products being sent out in different batch sizes, for example – demanding a change to both coding and the end-of-line production schedule.

As we experience a second wave of the pandemic, it is also clear that consumers are not rushing back to the high street, suggesting that companies will need to dynamically manage a hybrid sales model – and the associated implications on packaging – for some time.

Customer expectations with regards to product safety and hygiene are also creating new trends within product packaging, trends which reverse the shift away from plastic that has occurred over recent years.

With hygiene concerns outstripping sustainability goals for the time being – a situation that may or may not reverse over the coming months as many governments’ ‘green’ incentives come into force – companies may need to explore different packaging solutions to help meet customer expectations.

Agility through automation

The economic pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented – whether from supply price variation, the new investment required to ensure workforce safety, the pull to embrace e-commerce, or the need to streamline product lines; each has necessitated significant changes to business models the world over.

For companies that are still reliant upon traditional, manual production processes, the past months have been extremely challenging. Building in contingencies, dynamically reducing SKUs and managing the evolving bricks and mortar/ e-commerce mix means an urgent need for control.

The necessary levels of control and agility can only be achieved by creating trusted, repeatable processes that improve efficiency and reduce the risk of expensive errors – adopting automation in coding and marking is one way that manufacturers can look to achieve this.

To take a recent example, one well-known food manufacturer – that fully automated coding through its SAP – was able to successfully eliminate coding errors and significantly increase productivity by removing associated downtime that typically accounted for as much as two hours each day.

Similarly, a major beverage company – where gaps in coding processes had previously led to a $40,000 recall – completely removed human intervention failures with the introduction of integrated automation, mitigating production risk and increasing efficiency by 100%.

As well as limiting the risk of coding errors and associated downtime, coding automation can also provide manufacturers with a full, seamless communication stream, as well as options for increased visibility and data sharing.

This can fuel more efficient operations and provide increased control and agility when coping with changes in demand or moving between e-commerce and bricks and mortar product packaging.

Furthermore, by automating coding solutions, manufacturers can streamline production processes, reduce downtime by improving product changeovers and benefit from greater visibility of what is happening in real time on a production line.

Moreover, utilising vision control alongside coding automation to check codes can help to avoid unnecessary waste when a problem does arise.

Finally, coding automation can provide manufacturers with business insight that can prove essential when coping with an unprecedented change in demand.

Understanding at a glance the number of items coded per day can help to ensure the right amount of inventory – from the packaging materials to the labels and ink that is required to keep production lines running smoothly.

Planning for the future

COVID-19-related supply chain challenges will, hopefully, abate over time and companies will adapt. But this is not going to be the last supply chain upheaval and it remains to be seen how consumer behaviour will evolve over the coming months and years.

One thing that is certain is that, in the current geopolitical climate, it is more important than ever for manufacturers to remain flexible and agile in order to respond to sudden changes in supply and demand. On modern-day production lines, manual processes are a barrier to success.

To achieve the rapid change and adjustment required to respond to supply chain disruption – whether that is due to economics, weather or health events – automation is essential.

Coding and marking may not be the most immediate thing that springs to mind when you think of automation in manufacturing. However, coding automation can play a surprisingly significant role in increasing accuracy and agility on production lines.

As we move beyond the current crisis, manufacturers that take the opportunity to automate their coding solutions and realise the benefits of enhanced control and visibility over their production processes will find themselves better equipped to continue production, whatever the future holds.

Andy Barrett is Senior Product Manager at Domino Printing Sciences

4th February 2021

Andy Barrett is Senior Product Manager at Domino Printing Sciences

4th February 2021

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