February 22, 2023
I spent the first part of my journalism career writing for a magazine that covered the supply chain and logistics technology space, so this supply chain-focused issue of Digital Engineering has put me in a reflective mood. Back then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, supply chain management was very much focused on Lean principles. Inventory was a dirty word. Goods must always be moving, hurtling from Point A to Point B with as little inertia as possible. Parts should be delivered to the manufacturing floor as close to just-in-time as possible, and finished goods should linger on the loading dock for as brief a time as possible, and speed along to their destination.
This model largely worked for a long time, but rested on a pretty big assumption: that things were going to go right most of the time. Even as a young writer, fresh out of college and with very little background in manufacturing or logistics, I was a bit unnerved by this entire proposition. By the late 1990s, supply chains were complex hand-offs of components and goods manufactured in far-flung countries with low labor costs, dropped onto barges that had to cross the ocean, and then reloaded into a network of trucks and trains and delivery vans.
What would happen to this, I always wondered, when something went wrong? What if our assumptions about just-in-time operations were off base?
Well, you know what they say about assuming. If we have learned nothing from the past three years, we should have at least learned that things can always go wrong.
This is not entirely the fault of the people who came up with these models. We were all lulled into a false sense of security by what, by most measures, was a fairly unusual and lengthy period of relative peace and prosperity that made our global supply chain possible.
Technology played a big role, too, but also blinded us to old-fashioned vulnerabilities. War. Fear. Political instability. Disease. Like those Martian invaders in War of the Worlds, done in by the common cold, the architects of global commerce did not realize such a small thing as a virus could cause so much disruption.
Fortunately, new technologies and approaches are emerging in the design and manufacturing space that can help mitigate these vulnerabilities. Digitalization and additive manufacturing may make it possible to move production closer to consumption. Simulation can help companies get a better handle on potential risks, and then help model possible responses. Design software is making it easier to factor in things like material costs and availability, packaging design, and shipping ramifications.
The technology that has helped industry improve the way we design products can also help us ensure those products get to where they need to be. But only if we have learned the right lessons from this supply chain wake-up call.