As the triple whammy of 40-year-high inflation, hiring hurdles and supply chain bottlenecks continue to strangle commerce in America, smart companies are getting creative.
From rethinking fulfillment and material handling systems to planning for the Spring 2023 shopping season now, here’s how to negotiate ongoing supply issues.
Adopt flexible automation
Just as you can train cross-skilled employees to be shifted to other departments during peak season, flexible automation can help your machines or departments accrue greater utility. In today’s rapidly changing environment, now may be the perfect time to invest in more flexible systems that can be quickly redesigned in response to customer demand, says Mike Larsson, 57, an executive at the logistics solutions company Atlanta-based Dematic. Think of a distribution center’s software system, which could go from simply recording orders to providing real-time order data analytics to help suppliers evolve with market fluctuations and supply issues. workforce.
Putting robots to work
Until last quarter, e-commerce growth had been one of the few bright spots for businesses over the past two years. But it has also amplified the demand for labor, which may make automation necessary. Warehouse owners are increasingly aware of the needs. Analysts at market research firm ABI Research predict that the number of warehouses using robotics will grow from 4,000 to 50,000 worldwide by 2025, with nearly half of those warehouses complemented by robotics – or 23,000 – in the United States alone.
“With robotics,” says Larsson, “you can further automate your system to continuously pick orders, which helps increase throughput during peak seasons.” These robots are designed to help human workers perform various tasks in the warehouse environment, Larsson adds. Some robots follow human pickers around the warehouse floor and act as mobile storage bins for picked orders. They may also transport materials, suppliers and inventory to warehouses.
However, be lucid about the cost of automation. While a robot might be great if you don’t have humans ready to do the job, if you’re moving an employee with this technology, you might want to train that human worker. Redeploying employees displaced by automation can ensure that each person brings their maximum value. For example, you can move extrovert employees to sales or technical support, and create a department dedicated to programming and using robots.
Maintain strong partnerships
FedUp Foods, a private label manufacturer based in Marshall, North Carolina, relies on trade with long-time suppliers. Swapping surplus goods for low-stock items has helped the company survive supply chain chaos so far, says Zane Adams, 43, co-CEO of FedUp.
The company swapped a palette of kombucha for a palette of toilet paper at the height of the pandemic, Adams says. It’s just one more reason to maintain a strong relationship with suppliers, he adds. “Our best response to this supply chain chaos has been to stay extremely human and treat our suppliers like real humans who also have trouble navigating noise and distractions,” Adams says.
Reassess product lines
Although the diversity of the offer can certainly attract more customers, it can become a weakness if it is used to support too wide a product range, which can be disrupted by a shortage of components.
Alison Cayne, 50, founder and CEO of Haven’s Kitchen, a creative cooking company based in New York, says she has to ditch her favorite sauce during the pandemic after one of the ingredients became unavailable. She suggests business owners try to avoid excessive ingredient lists and have safeguards for each ingredient to avoid sudden shortages on the supply side.
“Everything takes 2-3x longer to produce, so we all need to be very vigilant about risky ingredients and plan accordingly as much as possible,” Cayne says.
If the pandemic has taught entrepreneurs anything, it’s that it’s never too late to plan, says Bill Thayer, co-founder and co-CEO of Fillogic, a New York-based logistics platform for retailers. In an interview with Inc. last year, Thayer said companies should plan for busy seasons a year in advance. “Be very careful and critical when purchasing seasonal products with a short delivery window. If you are shipping seasonal items, act quickly.”