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Time to create stronger, more agile U.S. supply chains

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

CESMII, partners advocate for data-exchange infrastructure

When Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute needed clear plastic to make face shields for the coronavirus pandemic, conventional suppliers were unable to provide it. “We are now one of the largest purchasers of document covers in the country,” Robert Hull, acting VP for research at Rensselaer, said during a  webinar that SME and CESMII – the Smart Manufacturing Institute hosted recently. “That’s what we made our visors out of.” Watch the full panel discussion.

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Johnson & Johnson’s Cornelia Coles

Rensselaer’s solution isn’t sustainable or scalable. And while Hull’s example may be extreme and a one-off, the pandemic’s effects weren’t restricted to clear plastic: the country saw it create problems in other established supply chains too, including those for semiconductor chips and household appliances. In addition, there have been and will be other supply chain disruptions created by future pandemics, extreme weather and cyberattacks.

“The pandemic highlighted even more the importance of having strategic partnerships with suppliers, and the true need to improve our digital connections that are going to improve the resiliency and the response time to these challenges,” said Kim Riddle, VP of supply chain innovation and governance for Procter & Gamble.

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Procter & Gamble’s Kim Riddle

In response, a set of strategies, policies and recommendations to strengthen the manufacturing base and improve its ability to respond to future disruptions, including a National Manufacturing Guard, is proposed by Manufacturing USA. The group is a public-private partnership created to secure the country’s global leadership in advanced manufacturing.

Among the items included in its proposal is a real-time, end-to-end national supply chain data exchange, which was highlighted in the webinar. In addition to CESMII, P&G and Rensselaer, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson and NxGen Group took part in the webinar—as members of a supply chain task force CESMII has assembled.


General Mills’ John Church

“Through the years, a lot of capital has been invested in systems that provide connectivity to suppliers, to warehousing, to inventories, to manufacturing operations,” said Jim Wetzel, CEO of NxGen Group and leader of the task force.

Still, during the pandemic, “one thing that was true through all of these companies, as well as through other companies in the United States, was the ability to be connected, the ability to scale, the ability to actually have end-to-end coverage and transparency and visibility, was somewhat limited. And some would say I’m very generous using the word ‘somewhat.’ Some people would say it was ‘crippling’.”

Wetzel went on to describe how major companies like those in the webinar may have their own data exchanges with their supply chains, but they’re fragile, expensive to establish and incomplete. As members of the task force, they’ve joined together to create a proof-of-concept with their partners and suppliers to demonstrate, “how we can actually create this national exchange of information and do it at scale.”

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Robert Hull

“There are absolutely opportunities around connecting digitally, automating, making response times quicker, being able to see where things are in transit, what the manufacturing queue looks like,” said John Church, executive VP of supply chain at General Mills. “It can allow for more efficiency and more [everyday] productivity but it also is incredibly important during times of disruption.”

CESMII CEO John Dyck, who moderated the webinar, went further: “This initiative won’t be successful if it’s only helpful in extremely dire disruptions like a pandemic.”


NxGen Group’s Jim Wetzel

The value must extend to suppliers—who would have to see benefit in sharing important data, Dyck said.

“It’s important for the suppliers to have access to that data that would also be critical to them and their operations,” said Cornelia Coles, VP of supply chain innovation, orchestration and deployment for J&J. “This means real-time access to demand data and the ability to interact with us as the customer in real time regarding that data.”

As a result, both suppliers and major companies can operate more predictably, optimize inventory, make decisions quicker, gain data-driven insights and increase productivity, she said.

There’s no question exchanging data in a meaningful way opens opportunities regardless of where a company sits on the value chain, Church said.

“If you’re a supplier, if you can see what our needs are going to be [and] understand if there’s more availability of business for you,” he said. “You can think about how to optimize your business to minimize transportation costs [and] build the most effective schedules. That’ll lead to more economic wherewithal.”

In a related but separate development, the Biden-Harris administration said recently that it would establish a whole-of-government Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force to monitor and address transitory supply chain challenges where supply and demand are mismatched. The administration has designated four critical product lines: semiconductors, advanced batteries, pharmaceuticals and their components and critical minerals.

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