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Supply chains are being pulled to the limit

Sabri Ben-Achour Apr 17, 2020
Cranes stand idle at the Port of Los Angeles — the nation's busiest container port — as supply chains shift during COVID-19. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Supply chains are being pulled to the limit

Sabri Ben-Achour Apr 17, 2020
Cranes stand idle at the Port of Los Angeles — the nation's busiest container port — as supply chains shift during COVID-19. Mario Tama/Getty Images

For the businesses still trying to make products in this new world — whether it’s a lifesaving treatment or a bag you use for carry out — just functioning as normal is a huge challenge.

Take MilliporeSigma, a life sciences company that makes materials that can be used to make antibodies and vaccines that might one day help treat COVID-19, among other things; things like a type of filter for bioreactors.

“This filter’s membrane was developed in Massachusetts, it is now cast in Cork, Ireland. The polymers that are used are sourced from a variety of different countries, including China and India. The solvents come from Darmstadt, Germany,” said chief exective Udit Batra.

The frames for the filters are made in Mexico. All of that to make one product… that is used to make. … another product

“We rely on a well functioning global supply chain,” Batra said.

When one small supplier in France was about to shut down due to a lockdown, Batra’s company had to step in to get permission for them to keep working. When a plane loaded with components couldn’t take off in India, they sought help from the Swiss ambassador and the Indian government.

“Supply chains across industries are going through a lot of disruption,” said Susan Lund, a leader of the McKinsey Global Institute.

What once was shipped by plane may now have to go by boat or rail, and breakdowns way up a supply chain are catching some companies by surprise.

“Very few companies have good visibility into the suppliers of their suppliers and the suppliers of the tier 2 and so on,” Lund said, adding that a lot of manufacturers had inventories and stockpiles when the pandemic began and are only now drawing them down.

That means the shutdowns that began months ago in China, where so many items come from, are only just now starting to show up in some supply chains. For some industries, this is the worst possible moment for supply chains to break.

“Starting in the middle of March, we saw huge spikes in sales as consumers were looking for ways to protect themselves and their families from the virus,” said Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, head of cleaning supply company Earth Friendly Products. To lower its carbon footprint, her company long ago decided to produce locally.

“The way our business is set up right now, we have four manufacturing facilities around the nation,” she said, adding that it’s that very structure that saved the business; when one part of the country shut down, others could take over.

As the pandemic calls into question traditional supply strategies, this is a strategy more manufacturers are following, according to Jeff Pratt, supply chain leader at BDO.

“It’s causing a lot of supply chain leaders to really look at the footprint of their supply chains,” Pratt said. “It’s been an easy decision for some time to say: ‘I’m gonna be supplied from a low-cost country, low-cost environment,’ and that’s been a predictable decision up until now. And we’ve seen … many clients being really dependent on certain geographies and suppliers, and I think both the tariffs and pandemic and downturn have really raised the focus on what the footprint of that extended supply chain should be, and whether there should be alternatives baked in.”

Companies are thinking about finding suppliers who are close to their market, geographically diverse, and who can serve as good backups. Simply being the cheapest won’t cut it.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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