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Launching products in a parts shortage

3 tips for navigating the current supply chain landscape

Ben Ettinger //June 15, 2021//

Launching products in a parts shortage

3 tips for navigating the current supply chain landscape

Ben Ettinger //June 15, 2021//

While it may feel like the dust is settling from the storm caused by COVID-19, the same can’t be said for the effect it has had on supply-chains around the globe.

While the spotlight has shone bright on semiconductor shortages, the fallout has permeated a multitude of industries.

If you’re in the process of taking a product to market, odds are that you are feeling the shockwave produced by global shortages and surging demands.

While large companies have the ability to take risks on part procurement early in the development process and stockpile components, smaller companies are left sorting out how they will hit their milestones and metrics amidst supply-chain disruptions.

As product designers and consultants, we have seen how the changing landscape of the global economy has uniquely effected numerous industries.

It’s been an interesting couple of years that have led to new insights and strategies for helping clients rise above these manufacturing challenges.

The following are three tips for navigating the current supply chain landscape.

1. Building & Maintaining Relationships 

During parts shortages, there is a paradigm shift in the supplier-designer relationship. The suppliers that you may have been pressing to improve costs or timelines can quickly become the same suppliers you are pleading with to help with your challenges when seemingly everyone is inundated with demand.

The way to remedy this is to prioritize positive relationships from the beginning. Reflecting on how your team can be better partners and collaborators with your supply-chain should be a routine exercise.

Unlike other insights we can offer companies, this one is not a switch that can be turned off and on when met with unprecedented times. This is about doing the right thing from the start to set the tone with suppliers and who them that we view them as partners.

That’s why even in a non-pandemic world, our team at LINK takes the time to meet with our suppliers, understand how to reach mutually beneficial outcomes, ask how we can help, and foster positive relationships.

When working with clients who are investing high volumes of time and money into programs and products, we ensure we’re doing our due diligence to invest in critical relationships with suppliers that will enable that program or product to be successful.

2. Rethinking Lean Processes  

Lean or “Just-In-Time” manufacturing has proven an extremely successful model for minimizing overhead costs and maximizing a company’s productivity by reducing waste. This has led to the efficiency of modern manufacturing that we, as product designers and engineers, know and love.

But the model works because the system is predictable. In the current state of supply-chain management “predictable” is not an adjective we would use to describe today’s processes.

This means that (at least for the moment) we need to rethink the “Just-In-Time” mentality.

We recommend taking a multidisciplinary approach to establishing system architecture early in the product development process, so that vetting and procurement of critical components can take place as early as possible in the program.

Understanding what parts and how many will be needed at each stage of development is crucial to avoiding delays due to access to parts.

This parallel path approach certainly can’t be applied to every part in a product, but where it can be employed, this tactic can substantially increase your team’s ability to have the right pieces in place to avoid delays.

3. Multisource Strategy  

It may sound simple, but the legwork behind establishing multiple sources for each component in a design is not a trivial endeavor. Generating, maintaining, and continuing to build on a qualified supplier list is no longer a nice-to-have part of the process.

A qualified supplier is pertinent to ensuring contingencies are in place to protect product timelines. Having an alternate vendor list for each part within a design can dramatically reduce the risk that part shortages will impact your product schedule.

While this point is especially salient in the electrical realm, the same thinking and planning can be applied to mechanical systems.

Understanding the contingencies surrounding each part of the design allows your team to appropriately assign risks for each part and make informed procurement decisions throughout the development cycle.

Although these insights are geared towards the current component shortages in manufacturing, they hold true for any product development endeavor. Applying rigor to supply-chain strategies and process improvements is beneficial even in less-trying times.

There will always be disruptions and hiccups along the way but building a strong team, smart processes and implementing contingency plans will allow companies to put their best foot forward for what is to come.

Ben Ettinger is a mechanical engineer at LINK Product Development with experience launching products in a multitude of industries, from medical devices to consumer electronics and everywhere in between.