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Supply Chain Disruptions & How to Mitigate Against Them

Labs, and indeed most businesses, depend on a well functioning supply chain and for obvious reasons.  

The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how damaging any disruption to supply chains can be.  You don’t even have to look at your own business.  Think about how many times you couldn’t find what you needed at your local grocery store and the headache that created.  Simply put, your lab – your business –  will not run as effectively if you don’t have your supply chain in order.

It is of course easier said than done.  There are a variety of factors that influence supply chains and of those, there is a good amount outside of our immediate control.  It should be noted that supply chains – and especially those within the US – have suffered from historically poor levels of investment.  The pandemic certainly played a role and its chief role was to exacerbate the situation and actually highlight the problems.  

Supply chains suffered from unpredictable demand.  It was almost impossible – especially at the start of the pandemic – to determine how much would be needed and frankly, for how long. There are many stories today of labs still sitting on a ton of swab collection kits going out of date or even businesses still trying to move their PPE supplies. 

Companies rely on dockworkers, truck drivers, and warehouse employees to continue to effectively run the shipping and logistics portion of their businesses. When there aren’t enough transport workers to move goods, supply chains break down– quickly. 

None of this was helped by the contraction in supply of truck drivers and those working at the ports.  The image of containers sitting on the ocean and ports being clogged up is still very fresh as is the image of trailers lined up without being moved.  

Every delay created more and more bottlenecks and none of this was helped by a diminishing workforce in warehouses and so it was a continuous negative spiral.  

This is the worst that it’s been in 50 years—and it’s probably getting worse

George Alessandria

Unfortunately, supply chain disruptions are not going anywhere.  In fact, some experts predict we can expect another year of uncertainty and indeed across all industries including life sciences.  The unfortunate war raging in Ukraine for example is blocking shipping routes which leads to delays and an increase in cost (and not just the cost of fuel).  Covid-19 lockdowns continue in China which further reduces manufacturing which in turn further negatively impacts supply chains.

What can labs do to minimize the impact of supply chain disruptions?

There are a number of actions that can be taken:

  • Accept that disruptions may continue to happen.  Once you accept as much, you may well be prompted to work on a contingency plan.  There is an old saying that necessity is the mother of all invention.  Think from now about what you can do if your lab was hit with disruption again.  
  • Identify back-up suppliers.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Identify other suppliers that you can reach out to when needed.  Don’t wait for a crisis or a pandemic to hit in order to do so.  Start building those relationships from now. 
  • Build up your inventory – and especially of those items you have identified as most at risk. This isn’t to say that you should become a mini-warehouse!  Ideally your contingency planning can help identify the most vulnerable stock you need and how much you may need.  Being out of stock, which could result in a pause in operations, is far worse. 
  • Make sure everyone is communicating.  No-one should face an inventory issue because of a lack of communication or because of a lack of visibility.  Make sure the right people are talking and that they remain aware of the situation.  If you don’t highlight the importance of a steady supply of stock it won’t be front of mind nor will it be a priority. To help, you should consider investing in a procurement system to enable you to easily keep track of stock and to set re-occuring orders once set inventory levels have been hit.

These are not the be-all and end-all of the supply chain disruptions.  There is an acknowledgement that it is hard to manage supply chains especially if you don’t have the resources to manage it.  There are different realities for the bigger labs versus the smaller – medium sized labs.  We can acknowledge as much but, it is just that though.

All labs – irrespective of size – have to be proactive. Taking action is far more useful and whilst we may not be able to fully eradicate the risks of supply chain disruptions, we can certainly mitigate for them and plan better for them.  The result being that they have a lesser impact on our respective businesses.  

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