It is early April 2020 and the world is in the middle of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The contagion has hugely impacted supply chains, and in some cases supply chains have hugely impacted the contagion, stepping up to allow automobile manufacturers pivot to building ventilators, airplane manufacturers switch to 3D printing protective visors, and drinks makers start making hand sanitisers. And that doesn’t even start to get into the challenges facing grocery stores maintaining stock levels.
In the midst of this Richard Howells wrote an excellent piece in Forbes titled Business As Unusual: Resiliency In Times Of Supply Chain Disruption examining how supply chains are coping with the outbreak so I thought I’d invite him on the show to discuss this and we had a fascinating conversation on the topic.
Click on the player above to hear our conversation and/or check out the transcript below:
Richard Howells [00:00:00] So there’s lots of areas where we’re seeing companies addressing short term challenges, but also looking at ways to rebalance their supply chains, moving forward and having risk mitigation strategies. I think supply chains will, if they don’t already in every business, will have a seat at the table of every business moving forward because they’re both an opportunity and a risk.
Tom Raftery [00:00:27] Good morning, good afternoon or good evening. Wherever you are in the world, this is the digital supply chain podcast and I am your host, Tom Raftery.
Tom Raftery [00:00:38] Hi, everyone, welcome to the Digital Supply Chain podcast. My name is Tom Raftery and with me on the show today, I have Richard Howells. Richard, would you like to introduce yourself?
Richard Howells [00:00:47] Hi, Tom. So I work for SAP in the area of digital supply chain and I spend a lot of time writing about business challenges, trends and opportunities for supply chain executives.
Tom Raftery [00:01:00] Yeah, you write a lot of stuff on Forbes as some great some great articles. And you wrote one because, you know, we are; this is, what, the second of April 2020, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. The Covid-19 Coronavirus virus pandemic. Today is the day that we are going to reach 1 million people infected and 50000 dead. And, you know, it’s presenting a lot of challenges. And you wrote a blog post about this on Forbes called Business as Unusual Resiliency in times of Supply Chain Disruption. And you made some, you know, great points in that and talked up some interesting stories. So I thought it’d be cool to have you come on the podcast, because, you know, this is a supply chain issue big time globally. And you address a lot of those challenges there in that article. So would you like to talk a little bit about that?
Richard Howells [00:01:53] Sure. So, I mean, I start I started the article off about talking about some of the challenges from a supply chain perspective that this pandemic has caused. I mean, it’s hard to believe that when we were celebrating New Year’s Eve for three months ago that this didn’t was a figment of wasn’t even a figment of anyone’s imagination. We couldn’t believe that we’d be been this case three months later. And what’s happened is that I mean, we’re seeing supply chain at the centre of everything at the moment. It’s both the challenges in some cases and the opportunities in others. I mean, when we started off with the issues in China, it considered it created a huge supply issue because China is the manufacturing factory of the world. So when you’ve got uncertain supply of critical materials, it has a knock on effect throughout the whole world. And then as the pandemic spread, so did the demand volatility as people started panic buying. I mean, we’re seeing huge demand for medical equipment, medical devices and of of of key products from a from a consumer goods standpoint. And the demand for luxury items and discretionary items is nonexistent. Now, it’s amazing to me that we are reliant as a globe now on 20 or 30 items that everyone’s looking for in the stores and… toilet paper of all things, who thought there would be a rush on toilet paper.
Tom Raftery [00:03:23] I think that was a I think there was a social media thing more than anything else, because I went to I we had our lockdown announced on the 14th and I went to their local supermarket and there was plenty of toilet paper. What was missing was all the meat. The meat counter was stripped bare. Now that was fixed in a matter of a couple of days. It was a supply chain issue again. You know, they didn’t anticipate that big demand, but they and they got it fixed in a couple of days. So there aren’t any shortages here. There are sometimes if you go to the shops, there might be a short term shortage of an individual brand, but not of that, not of the class of goods.
Richard Howells [00:03:57] And I’m based in the US. And we’ve still got I mean, you’re you’re a few weeks ahead as far as the pandemic is in in Spain. And we we still have shortages. And those shortages are now because of capacity constraints. There are shortages because we don’t have enough manufacturing capacity to increase the production of toilet paper, for example, which was running at full production anyway. And we’re having logistics challenges of getting goods from point A to point B. What if they’ve got to come from foreign foreign ports or foreign countries? There’s no transport that the flights are down by 80 plus percent. Some of the ports are closed or there’s less or less capacity going through it. And then we’ve got the challenge of drivers and the risk that those drivers are taking without the proper security and humanitarian coverage. And that’s the final challenge I think we see from this at the moment, is that humanitarian risk, the balance of of labour shortages, but also of ensuring the health and safety of employees who are doing the vital jobs, who are doing the “required jobs”. How we’ve changed manufacturing processes, for example, where there can be less people on the plant floor. So to make sure that we’ve got the social distancing during working environment, working processes and working environments as well.
Tom Raftery [00:05:22] That’s going to be a huge challenge for manufacturers. I mean, they they’ve set up their manufacturing lines in a particular way. And to your point now, they have to do social distancing between the employees and the floor and just for health and safety.
Richard Howells [00:05:33] Yes, it’s it’s it’s things that you wouldn’t think about in normal circumstances, I’m sure it’s never been thought through as a as a plan of how to do this. And people are having to come up with solutions literally on the fly.
Tom Raftery [00:05:47] I went grocery shopping yesterday just for the second time since lockdown because the grocery shops are tending to push us towards online deliveries and in the grocery stores now, they have markings on the floor to say where you should stand when you’re in a queue for the checkout counter you know, and there is, you know, two meters between each mark so that you’re two meters behind the person in front of you. You know, again, for social distancing and they have to have a glass Perspex barrier between you and the person at the checkout counter, which was never there before. And again, it’s just to protect the employees from potential infection from shoppers. Yes, and vice versa, I suppose.
Richard Howells [00:06:27] Is that just they’ve just started introducing in some of the stores here one way systems around the supermarkets as well, which I haven’t seen up until now in the US.
Tom Raftery [00:06:36] Wow, wow, wow
Richard Howells [00:06:38] And we’re seeing lots of repurposing as well of manufacturing. I sent you a link this morning to the Airbus plants here in Spain. I mean, Airbus have several factories here in Spain and they have over 20 3D printers because they I mean, they were they were the first commercial airline company to use 3D printed parts and commercial flights back in, I think was 2015. So they’ve been playing a lot and working a lot after playing working a lot with 3D printers. And now they’ve turned that around into using those 3D printers to make the Perspex masks that the health workers, the health care workers are using to keep themselves safe when they’re dealing with people who are very sick. Actually, there’s a there’s a consortium that I’ve seen online of 3D printing companies who are sharing the designs of these 3D masks for that very purpose that they’re crowdsourcing and sharing the information. And we’re also seeing other companies doing some similar things. I mean, I read about Medtronic’s are opening up, or making that does the designs of their ventilators so that they’re simple ventilators, their basic line of ventilators open to other people so that they can manufacture those ventilators. And they’re also partnering with with Tesla to to to increase their production. You’re you’re seeing automotive companies becoming outsourced, manufacturers for medical device companies to increase the production, because there’s a lot of very small ventilator manufactures that just can’t scale.
Tom Raftery [00:08:15] If I had said that to you in December thirty first, that the car companies would be making ventilators in April of this year, you’d said, Tom, you’re smoking crack.
Richard Howells [00:08:24] That’s exactly what happened. Yes. And they’re becoming the contract manufacturers rather than working with lots of contract manufacturers for their parts.
Tom Raftery [00:08:31] So how do they how are these automotive, for example, companies sourcing the parts to manufacture these ventilators? How would that work?
Richard Howells [00:08:40] Well, that means that that means having improved visibility across the supply chain. I mean, first of all, I mean, SAP is doing a lot of work in providing offers to our customers to access some of our, some of our systems in these times of need and mapping, mapping the visibility of where the suppliers are that have the inventory with your demand and in-building and having visibility across the network of that is a huge, huge first step. I mean, I would imagine that there’s as I said, there’s a lot of partnerships going on. The also the the the the medical device manufacturers will be sharing their partner information and their supply information and supply sources to satisfy that demand for additional materials that these companies may never buy. I mean, we’re seeing other examples. We’re seeing perfume manufacturers and liquor producers making hand sanitizers. I mean, at the moment, the medical device, medical companies need three or four sections of things. They need we need they need the public to have and they need hand sanitizers to reduce the spread of the virus. They need the masks, the testing equipment and the robes for testing people and treating people. And ultimately, in the worst case situations, they need ventilators and an unparalleled amount of ventilators to actually treat the most critically ill. And companies are coming together to help support that. As I said, I mentioned the hand sanitizer example. We see the ventilator example with car manufacturers. We’re seeing other companies. Another one of our customers, actually Decathlon are are repurposing this, their the devices for their breathing, snorkelling devices and adapting them to be ventilators, working with with partners to adapt them to be ventilators. So we’re we really are thinking out of the box and and building partnerships that you wouldn’t have seen. And it’s it’s actually good to see companies coming together to solve solve some of these problems.
Tom Raftery [00:10:45] I came across a thread of tweets a couple of days ago and again this morning because someone else tweeted, not me, where it was. I think a psychologist talking about how in times like this, people are afraid that there’s going to be a breakdown of social order. Whereas in fact, in times of crisis like this, it seems to bring out, in fact, the best of us, the likes of the people in New York in 9/11, all coming together to help each other out. And, you know, we’re seeing it again in this situation where rather than, you know, everything falling apart, in fact, we’re getting to your point, unprecedented partnerships between businesses that would never work together before, to try and all come together to produce the goods that are in short supply.
Richard Howells [00:11:31] Yes. I mean, you see it at a personal level with with neighbours helping other neighbours. And we’re seeing it at a business level as well at a larger scale. And it’s it’s good to see. But the wrong circumstance. Wish we didn’t have to see it, but it’s good to see when it does happen.
Tom Raftery [00:11:47] Richard, what are some of the strategies that companies are coming up with to address this situation?
Richard Howells [00:11:53] Well, what we’re seeing across all areas of the supply chain, different, different needs and different strategies. If we start at the basic level over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve stripped a lot of cost out of the supply chain. We went to a global supply chain to reduce the cost of raw materials. For example, we’ve outsourced a lot of our manufacturing to have cheaper labour. And this has done a great job in cost reduction. But it’s also increased the risk involved, which… Exactly, it’s coming home at the moment as a huge cost implication and a customer service implication. And in the short term, I think we’ve got to work out where the from a supply standpoint, where the inventory is, how can I access that inventory? Which which partners do I have that already have it? Which other companies have available inventory that I can source? How do I get the goods to the right place, to the hotspots when we’re talking about medical supplies to the to the areas with the most shortages? When we talk about supermarkets, we’re seeing so so alternate sourcing strategies are one of the areas in the short term that I see a lot of supply chains looking to to solve. Also, where to position inventory in a in a global supply chain. I can’t be totally reliant on having all my finished goods being shipped and it takes a week for me to get the finished goods. I need a source of inventory of finished goods locally. We are seeing a lot of companies start thinking or will be thinking a lot about the balancing of offshoring versus near shoring versus on shoring, even though it may cost more to manufacture locally, but you need that to reduce that risk. The whole area of employee safety, of ensuring you have the environmental, health and safety processes in place to ensure the safety of your people working on the plant floor. The people working in the distribution area and and and your customers safety of making sure that the products are of good quality and having visibility of demand, I think is critical. I mean, this may be a case. It’s taken a long time to for the retailers to share the point of sales information with manufacturers. Now is the time to share that information. We need to know where we have shortages. We need to know what is going off the shelves, although it’s pretty obvious what’s going off the shelf as a consumer. But maybe the manufacturing companies could have had advanced information of that to get more goods of the right sort to to the to the retailers that needed it the most. So there’s lots of lots of areas where we’re seeing companies addressing short term challenges, but also looking at ways to rebalance their supply chains, moving forward and having missed risk mitigation strategies. I think supply chains will if they don’t, already in every business will have a seat at the table of every business moving forward because they’re both an opportunity and a risk.
Tom Raftery [00:15:03] Yeah, absolutely. And so that that brings up a good point. Where do we go? Post pandemic? You know, in whether it’s six or 12 or 18 months time, what is the supply chain world going to look like?
Richard Howells [00:15:18] Well, I mentioned I think we’ll have still have global supply chains, but maybe with local execution we will be balancing our inventory so that we keep a certain percentage of inventory locally. We will be balancing our manufacturing, outsourcing vs. and offshoring to to maybe doing some of the manufacturing ourselves and at least having it local, local manufacturing capabilities and capacities. I think that we will not be reliant on single sourcing strategies. We won’t put all our eggs in one basket. We will we will have multiple suppliers to provide the same critical the critical components that we need and balance that. Maybe we work with one but 20 percent and 80 percent with the other at the moment, but have the ability to switch so that you can go to local sourcing as and when required. And it’s going to cost a little bit more, but it will reduce risk. And I think sustainability actually will be a huge thing moving forward. I mean, it should be a huge thing anyway. But we’re seeing the in the environmental impact of this pandemic is actually a positive impact on the globe. We’re seeing less pollution in certain areas and we’re seeing cleaner waterways due to lack less less distribution and fumes being put into the atmosphere. And I think that as companies start to think about how they are global but execute locally, that will reduce the carbon footprint of our supply chains automatically. But we also want to ensure that we we are still sourcing ethically, that we are having good labour manufacturing environments to work in for working conditions and we are designing sustainable products and recyclable products for the good of the planet anyway.
Tom Raftery [00:17:22] I actually have a very practical example of that. I have a personal air quality meter. It’s made by a company called Plume. Plume Labs. It’s called a Flow air quality meter. It’s it’s a device you wear on your belt loop or somewhere like that. And it measures five different air quality indices. There are things like VOCs which are, you know, volatile organic compounds, NOx, pm 1, pm 2.5, and pm 10, that’s particulate matter at different sizes. And it has an app which comes with the phone, which syncs with the phone. So it matches up the air quality, which it measures once every minute along those five measurements. It synchs that with the G.P.S. coordinates and then uses mapping data to give you a map of the air quality for everywhere you’ve been for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year, etc.. So, I only get out of the house now to walk the dogs because we’re on lockdown and walking the dogs is literally the only… Well that and grocery shopping, you know. But what of the groceries are, you know, online deliveries? So just walking the dogs. I used to walk the dogs anyway before the lockdown. So I have before and after data for the air quality where I live and for the walk that I take every day. So I’ve perfect A.B data and these the the difference in air quality between, you know, before the lockdown and since the lockdown is just amazing. And even even before the lockdown, you know, I used to in presentations talk about this, talk about, you know, you get air quality in one area, which is terrible and in another area, which is better. But it’s not just it’s not just it’s not just a question of where. It’s also a question of when. And what I mean by that is… Rush hours? Yeah, exactly. The the I used to take the dogs out for a walk in the morning and the evening and in the morning it was, you know, just before 9:00 a.m. and I’d be walking past a local school. And of course, all the SUVs would be outside the school as the parents were delivering their kids. I’d walk past the same school at eight o’clock in the evening and there wouldn’t be a car from miles. And the air quality difference between those two times a day for the exact same place was incredible. But now that there have been almost no cars driving by there in three and a half weeks, it’s it’s flat. You know, there’s almost nothing there at all. It’s just like almost it’s not it’s not exactly zero across all five measurements, but it’s close enough.
Richard Howells [00:20:15] And it’s interesting, using personal devices like that would be a great way of getting the information across the globe or the country. You know, about how that has improved because that information is is stored centrally in the cloud some whereand that information can really add value. And that’s another example about that. We’ve been seeing this in the news about we we can see where the hot spots are and where that they’re reducing a little by people who were using electronic temperature. That’s right. The company has visibility across the North America at the moment of the temperatures are coming down in certain areas, which implies that people are getting a little healthier in those areas or the pandemic isn’t as is reducing in some of those areas or increasing as the case may be. Saw that. That’s fascinating. A type of information from Smart Assets is very valuable in today’s climate and it’s very valuable from a business perspective moving forward as well.
Tom Raftery [00:21:17] It is. And the company who make that air quality meter know that, they’ve been mapping air quality across cities globally since they started. It was a, you know, one of the one of the business drivers of creating the air quality meters. Richard, we’re at about 20 minutes. We’re just over 20 minutes. So we’re coming towards the end of the podcast. I like to keep it about the 20 to 25 minute mark. Is there is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that you think that we should have?
Richard Howells [00:21:44] I think we’ve covered most of the topics or all the topics, I think. I’d just like to. I hope that everyone stays safe and adheres with the different mandates and guidances from the different governments around the world, and hopefully the next time we we do a podcast Tom, we’ll be talking about in happier times and about happier subjects.
Tom Raftery [00:22:05] I hope so. OK, everyone, thanks a million for your interest. Richard, thanks for coming on the show. And to everyone who’s listening. Stay happy. Stay healthy. Stay safe. Stay sane. Because, I mean, you know, we’re on lockdown right now. It’s very easy to kind of go a bit out of your head, do stay sane.
Richard Howells [00:22:24] I’m not sure if I can do that.
[00:22:30] OK, we’ve come to the end of the show. Thanks, everyone, for listening. If you’d like to know more about digital supply chains, head on over to SAP.com/digitalsupplychain or simply drop me an email to Tom Dot Raftery at SAP dot com. If you’d like to show, please don’t forget to subscribe to it in your podcast application to get new episodes right away as soon as they’re published. And also, please don’t forget to rate and review the podcast. It really does help new people. To find the show. Thanks. Catch you all next time.
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And remember, stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane!