It’s been a difficult period for the global supply chain. Increasing demand coupled with the disruption of Covid-19, the impact of Brexit in Europe and the UK, and a general skills shortage has led to queues at fuel pumps, gaps on supermarket shelves, and a scarcity of a whole range of products, from white goods to microchips and construction materials. The impact is being felt heavily in the UK, and to varying degrees across the world. A solution has yet to be identified – while governments (the UK in particular) are emphasising training and investment within the logistics sector, others are positing the implementation of automation as a complete solution. The answer lies somewhere in the middle.
What’s driving the supply chain problem?
The difficulties impacting the global supply chain are manifold. They began with Covid-19 and the necessary cessation of productivity for manufacturers all over the world, starting with China. Responsible for more than a quarter (28.7%) of the world’s manufacturing output, China’s shutdown inevitably impacted the global supply chain. The effects of Chinese lockdowns alone would have been enough to cause disruption. However, they were followed by varying degrees of lockdown in all other major manufacturing countries. Subsequently, the supply chain also experienced the problem of being unable to move the goods that had already been produced. Container ships became stranded at closed ports, drivers got sick and were unable to work, and those who could work couldn’t always cross borders.
While most pandemic-related restrictions have since been lifted, manufacturers are still struggling to catch up. Shortages of qualified HGV drivers have meant that many goods still aren’t being moved, and international ports are still being closed unexpectedly due to the threat of coronavirus. In August, Ningbo-Zhoushan, the world’s third busiest container port, was partly closed, causing massive disruption to supply lines across the world due to the detection of Covid-19.
Not all of the supply chain problems we’re facing can be levelled at the pandemic. Increasing demand was already putting strain on the infrastructure and Brexit damaged relations between the UK and Europe. In the UK, the implementation of the IR35 legislation drove many contract drivers to seek employment in other countries. Meanwhile, the trade war between China and the USA has seen the rollout of a huge amount of bureaucracy and tariffs – problems that are not easy to tackle, with or without technology.
Is there a role for technology in resolving the global supply chain crisis?
As the supply chain crisis continues, some voices call for the implementation of technology to relieve pressure. With IoT (Internet of Things) and developments in automation, there is the possibility of full digitisation, removing large amounts of human involvement from the supply chain process. It is a vision of a sci-fi future where man is replaced by machines. However, a more immediate and productive future can be formed with the application of technology to assist current processes.
People continue to play a significant role in current global supply chain issues. External factors such as the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in people being restricted from working, causing ongoing problems in meeting demand. High employee turnover is also fuelled by employee dissatisfaction, with long hours, physical strain, and little structure. Distribution centres often have rapid increases in work, resulting in employees needing to be available at short notice. These factors result in a more stressful working environment for employees. This stress is then exacerbated by low margins, which result in lower salaries and fierce labour competition.
To combat these issues, we need faster onboarding that helps to build employee confidence, improved employee engagement, and more effective communication. Many employees quit early due to feeling unable to fulfil their work quotas. Better onboarding via applications such as WorkJam sequences and orchestrates employee training systematically in an accessible format, providing comprehensive information and support to new employees, whilst simultaneously relieving some of the pressure related to onboarding from managerial positions. Engaging both current and new employees through shift flexibility and improved connectivity also improves overall employee satisfaction. It is vital to be aware that the issues present in employee retention can be impacted significantly by the quality of communication in a business. Enhanced communication channels with integrated inline translation and visual communication methods make it possible to transcend language barriers and accommodate those who need to communicate in their second (or even third) language. Specific communication channels can even be established in different languages to facilitate non-English speaking employees.
Technology has the power to support these adjustments, optimising the performance and satisfaction of supply chain employees. It can streamline processes, systems, and company communications, ensuring that employees are organised efficiently. Employee training can be enhanced, and individuals within the company can be provided with communication channels across the business’s chain of command. Live task management systems ensure that jobs are completed according to priority, and smart scheduling can help prevent burnout, ensuring that no employee is overtasked.
Businesses also cannot overlook the importance of technology in compliance. Digitisation greatly assists with documentation and regulatory compliance, generating reports on standard operating procedures, employee training, and company communications.
Technology provides support and enhancement to human processes. It should not be viewed as a replacement for the current workforce, but instead should be seen as a channel to streamline and improve processes, systems, and employee wellbeing. The demand on the global supply chain is only increasing. The integration of technology will provide the means to cope with both the current disruption and any issues that may arise in the future.