Considering Supply Chains

by Jeremy Morrison

The University of West Florida Center for Supply Chain Management Excellence hosted its second in a series of discussions Wednesday focusing on supply chain logistics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Supply chains are a tool,” explained UWF associate professor Dr. Stephen LeMay. “In the United States they perform extremely well under normal circumstances.”

During the public online Zoom discussion, a team of professors with the university’s College of Business dived into supply chain particulars during unusual, or even unprecedented circumstances.

In other words: where did all the toilet paper go?

“Supply chains need priorities,” said LeMay, explaining that the country had two different supply chains for toilet paper, one geared toward commercial uses and another, plusher variety for individual consumers.

In actuality, there’s always been plenty of toilet paper. Just not the variety sold in stores, but rather mass quantities of commercial rolls not packaged for consumer use.

“Most of us at home don’t need a case of 98 rolls of toilet paper under normal circumstances,” LeMay said, pointed out a supply-chain quirk.

The same is true with vegetables, with some food supply chains tooled to serve the consumer and others serving the commercial market. With restaurants closed and the commercial supply chain not nimble enough to pivot on a dime, there’s a breakdown.

“The vegetables end up sitting,” LeMay said. “You know, there’s no place to sell’em, so they end up sitting in the fields.”

Supply-chain mapping was suggested as a tool to better prepare businesses to weather periods of uncertainty.

“That idea of supply chain mapping is very interesting,” said Dr. Katrina Savitskie, an assistant professor in the department.

Savitskie said that it would be prudent for companies to invest in having a detailed understanding of their supply chains, and not just the suppliers supplying them, but also with the suppliers supplying the suppliers — in other words, second and third tier familiarity.

“It sounds simple, to map your supply chain,” prompted professor Dr. Scott Keller, asking Savitskie to elaborate on the exercise.

“It’s extremely hard and also very expensive,” Savitskie said, explaining that the task often requires not just a phone call, but a boots-on-the-ground approach to far-flung destinations.

Dr. Vitaly Brazhkin, another of the college’s assistant professors, agreed that such communication up and down the supply chain would be beneficial when planning for the unexpected shake-ups.

“The more people talk to each other, the more they share the data, the more likely they are to avoid what’s called the bullwhip effect.”

In addition to commercial and consumer goods, the discussion also covered items like medical protective equipment. Where such vital product is concerned, there was a consensus that the country should maintain a strategic reserve, treating medical gear much like military gear.

“In a for-profit environment it’s hard to imagine enough slack to respond to something like this,” LeMay said, pushing the strategic reserve concept.

UWF will continue this discussion concerning supply chains during its next virtual-roundtable installment, scheduled for May 13.