What’s the new normal for supply chain visibility in the post-COVID world?



COVID-19 has ripped up the rule book for a wide range of industries, disrupting business as usual in countless ways. But out of the chaos, has the pandemic also created unique opportunities to do things differently – to do it better? 

In manufacturing, the global healthcare crisis exposed weaknesses within the industry at a very early stage. PPE and ventilator shortages made headline news in some countries, but the pain was felt worldwide all the way along supply chains, for organizations large and small.   

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As manufacturing firms start to pick up the pieces and resume business as usual, some industry leaders are warning that now is the time for transformation – not a return to old ways. Where there was an over-reliance on what we now see as fragmented, fragile supply chains, there must now be a focus on building resilience. It’s time for a hard reset.  

But what does a post-COVID world look like for manufacturing supply chains?  

According to Martin Vares, the founder of cloud-based manufacturing start-up Fractory, it’s digital all the way.  

“The current situation is of course extreme. A lot of supply chains are suffering, as manufacturing companies are reducing their workforce or even halting operations. International freight adds an extra layer of complexity. Thus, a lot of engineering companies are searching for solutions that address the manufacturing process and the shipping process at the same time. I think this is why we’ve experienced a significant increase in interest in our service, as it addresses both problems simultaneously.” 

Explaining how his company’s model works, and how it has certainly proved its worth in the face of an enormous, unprecedented challenge like COVID-19, Vares says: 

“Our platform offers instant manufacturing quotes online and we take care of everything from quoting to delivery. But the manufacturing side is outsourced to our pre-vetted partners. Some engineers have been wary of us “being just a middleman”. They are now seeing the perks. With over 25 partners, we are not affected by small fluctuations in capabilities. And the same applies to our customers. 

“Contractors winning big jobs often don’t want to overwhelm their own production by using it for one order only. So they outsource parts of these large orders.  

“Fractory is just someone who can easily help other companies with managing the load. We are not being used by engineers only, other manufacturing companies often turn to us with the same objective. 

“Fractory’s automated manufacturing platform can rapidly switch between a network of partners to secure continuity of supply for our customers. Thus, it continues to run on full power and has been able to assist with large orders related to the NHS.  

“While the current situation brings a lot of uncertainty, digital manufacturing’s strength is becoming evident,” 

How digitization could aid post-COVID recovery 

Vares is far from alone in his opinion that digital will play a pivotal role in building the ‘new normal’ for supply chains and procurement. Matt Yeates, the managing director of the SteelScout procurement platform for Tata Steel, believes that it’s already changing the industry. According to Yeates, firms that already have digitized supply chains have a unique advantage over their competition when it comes to recovering from the worst effects of the pandemic. He explains: 

“Everybody now is experiencing major changes to their daily lives, learning to adapt to the guidelines for safe operation of our businesses, through to protecting our communities during the pandemic. These challenges mean we reach for new solutions or enhance current approaches.  

“The power of digital in solving these problems, from 3D printing to multiple participant video conferencing, has never more been more apparent. Digital enablers for the manufacturing value chain are developing fast and their value at the moment is magnified against the challenges of continuity for key industries and workers. 

“Being a digital business means that we’re able to respond quickly and rapidly connect the right buyers with the right suppliers in order to guarantee materials and jobs. We have already supported companies working on key projects, including the manufacturing of ventilators for the NHS, by being able to rapidly quote for and turn around materials and guarantee jobs. And we’re here to support businesses in any way we can during these challenging conditions.” 

When will the new normal emerge for manufacturing supply chains? 

Changes to long-established supply chain methods won’t happen overnight. But the coronavirus crisis could be the catalyst to speed up improvements and innovations that were already on the cards. 

Srinath Jonnalagadda, senior director of Autodesk’s Fusion 360 Go-to-Market, believes that companies need time to regroup and reflect before new norms can emerge within the industry. Fusion 360 has helped organizations to minimize COVID-19 disruption to projects in here and now, by centralizing data to the cloud and giving team members access any time, anywhere. He explains: 

“We have opened up these capabilities to everyone, for free, to minimize disruption across entire supply chains. We’re certainly seeing an influx of users looking to Fusion 360 to solve their design problems right now, but the increase is not our focus, we want to ensure people can still work.”

In Jonnalagadda’s view, embracing cloud-based and digitized supply chains could be one of the only ways to future-proof industry. He says: 

“Eventually companies will all be prepared for the system shocks that occur with global crises or unforeseen circumstances, and today that solution means moving to an increasingly digital and cloud-driven way of working.  

“The ultimate end-goal for manufacturing lies with centralized systems. If we can move towards fabrication strategies as we see in semi-conductor factories, with less and less human intervention, we can increase accuracy and open new possibilities up with automation, bringing about the next paradigm shift in technology and manufacturing.”

So, will temporary changes to digital-focused ways of working stick around in the long-term, and will digital become the new normal for manufacturing? It’s a cautious yes from Jonnalagadda:  

“It’s too early to tell if this new way of working will have a positive impact on the sector, there is much to be said about the desire for people to work in person, eye to eye, and we may see the pendulum swing back toward that aggressively in the short term once this is all over, but for manufacturing, just standardizing everyone onto a digital medium is already a major push forward.

“If the conveniences and efficiency continue to outweigh any potential drawbacks (and they continuously will!) then a predominantly digital workflow shall emerge as the new paradigm.”

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