Tackling the Disruptions and Scarcity of the Supply Chain
We've all noticed many of the things we buy are in short supply. From our favorite foods to furniture, items that once seemed to be in abundance on store shelves or online are out of stock and often come with lengthy waitlists.
Pandemic-induced supply chain plagues — like chip shortages, labor shortages, and backlogged cargo ships — continue to disrupt operations, causing ripple effects across a wide range of vertical industries. Material handling tools are no exception.
In pre-pandemic times, a broken barcode scanner or busted forklift might sit in the corner, with everyone taking for granted how easy it would be to repair or replace material handling equipment. Now, both component and labor shortages necessitate that warehouse operations teams think long and hard about the tools they've taken for granted just a couple of years ago.
What is Material Handling?
In the industry, “material handling” can be defined as the movement, protection, storage and control of materials and products throughout manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, consumption and disposal. Essentially, everything we need and do in our businesses to usher items out the door.
What is Material Handling Equipment?
Of course, material handling requires access to the appropriate tools. Often referred to as “material handling equipment,” you can think of this as any “tool that's used to assist in the movement, protection, storage and control of materials and products.”
These definitions are fairly broad, as it requires many moving parts to guide materials through the supply chain — and, of course, these needs can vary greatly from business to business and product to product. So here we’ll hone in on possible solutions for reducing the negative impact and disruption when the tools we use are in short supply — whatever business you’re in.
What Are the Tools the Supply Chain Needs to Run Itself in Scarce Supply?
The global pandemic, scarcity of raw materials, and labor shortages prevalent in the world at large have been uniquely impacting the supply of material handling equipment.
Let’s take forklifts, for example. Hyster-Yale, a lift manufacturer, recently announced in its first quarter results for 2022 that “lift truck bookings continue to exceed shipments as production continued to be disrupted by component shortages due to supplier and logistics constraints.”
Hyster-Yale’s disclosures aren't unique; rather, they're indicative of the industry as a whole. Forklifts and other essential equipment are in short supply, and this disruption can be felt throughout the supply chain.
The scarcity of certain tools, like new lift truck bookings being delayed, means warehouses need to make their existing equipment last as long as possible. But shortages for components to make repairs, as well as labor shortages (there are too few maintenance technicians), make repairing items just as difficult as replacing them.
How Can You Future-Proof Your Operations?
Disruptions up the supply chain cause ripple effects. So what can you do to prepare? Here are four ways to future-proof your operation:
1. Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.
Much like mapping out your inventory, maintaining supply chain technology takes planning. But it doesn't need to feel daunting. You can start by simply creating a list of all of the items you and your team use on a daily basis.
And remember, don't take anything for granted. Take stock of all the tools you need for your operations to run smoothly. Regular maintenance of everything — from forklifts and barcode scanning hardware, to printers and pencil sharpeners (if you’re still using paper!) — will help minimize future downtime.
Additionally, investing in proper servicing and maintenance for equipment reduces expenses and risk, while also improving efficiency and working conditions for employees. The old adage, “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it," certainly doesn't apply to our current environment.
2. Continue to cultivate relationships with trusted suppliers.
It's vital that your suppliers are transparent about their supply chains. The best way to find out about any issues? Ask questions.
Ask your vendors questions about their supply chain planning and inventory, and seek their expert opinion on the biggest concerns in their vertical. Additionally, it's worth spending some time researching if there are any shortages in the verticals your suppliers operate within.
3. Prepare in advance.
Like we mentioned in our section on maintenance, it’s important to prepare in advance for unexpected surprises. Right now, “just in time” technology repairs aren't viable. As you conduct regular maintenance, and you see items that are approaching the end of their useful life, spend the time and resources to place an anticipatory order.
There may be an upfront cost, but the downtime later on will be a lot higher. Furthermore, inflation is negatively impacting the material handling space, so your advanced planning is also hedging a bet against the likelihood of higher prices.
4. Adopt fast and new technology.
Automating processes and bringing on the latest technology, whether by way of outright purchase or leasing, will make your operations more efficient — and give you an advantage to tackle labor shortages. Platforms as a service that are constantly bringing new efficiency tools to the table remove a lot of the guesswork needed to ensure your material handling equipment is performing at optimal levels.
Gabe Grifoni is the CEO and founder of Rufus Labs, a provider of wearable barcode scanning technology and productivity analytics for the supply chain.