Supply chain spotlight
Supply chain disruption is nothing new. Weather events, earthquakes, explosions, and even the CO2 shortage of 2018[i], 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 day to day but 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, cans, 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[ii], 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 ecommerce for the first time – raising the need for companies to flex dynamically between bricks and mortar and ecommerce sales. Importantly, packaging requirements for ecommerce shipments are very different to standard retail – with products sent out in different batch sizes for example – demanding a change to both coding and the end-of-line production schedule. As we enter a second wave of the pandemic, it is also clear that consumers are not rushing back to the high street; suggesting that brands 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. In Italy, for example, fresh fruit and vegetables that were previously sold loose are increasingly being wrapped in flexible plastic. With hygiene concerns outstripping sustainability goals for the time being – a situation that may or may not reverse over the next few 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 ecommerce, or the needs to streamline product lines; each has necessitated significant changes to business models the world over. For companies still reliant upon traditional, manual production processes, the past few months have been extremely challenging. Building in contingency, dynamically reducing SKUs, and managing the evolving bricks and mortar/ ecommerce 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 – who fully automated coding through their 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, and 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 ensure the right amount of inventory – from packaging materials to labels, inks, and make up supply – everything 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 coming months, even years. One thing for sure is that in the current geo-political 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 – be it due to economics, weather, or health event – 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 who 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.  The Independent, “UK faces beer shortage during World Cup and barbecue season”, accessed 21st August 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/uk-beer-shortage-world-cup-2018-co2-carbon-dioxide-barbecue-a8407971.html  The Manufacturer, “Beyond Covid-19: Building supply chain resilience”, accessed 21st August 2020. https://www.themanufacturer.com/articles/beyond-covid-19-building-supply-chain-resilience/