Supply chains are called such for a reason—they are not just a collection of suppliers, rather a virtual chain that extends all the way back to both the design and raw materials up through reverse logistics (a fancy term for customer returns, both in and out of warranty). It’s all linked together, hence chain. Every link is important, and it’s all about how it connects together. Unlike physical chains, however, supply chains are rarely linear, more like a misshapen, convoluted mesh than a long, straight chain. Hence mesh.
Optimizing the design for the supply chain or supply mesh can be a tedious task. It’s a can that is often kicked down the road, but this can lead to unfortunate results, locking in suboptimal supply meshes. We encourage our customers to envision their long term supply chain even during the earliest stages of design, and help steer the design toward that long term goal, even if there are several intermediate steps that need to be taken.
For designs that are already in progress or even complete, the first step is to evaluate the product’s documentation—bill of materials (BOM), work instructions, testing strategy, etc.—and make recommendations as to what changes in the design trajectory might make sense or if a redesign is needed. Often subtle tweaks in a design can have a huge impact on the overall supply chain: for example designing out a single long lead time item on an otherwise tight design could halve overall lead times. And the documentation analysis can also be used downstream as the basis for lowering costs via quoting out to other suppliers and / or negotiating more confidently with existing suppliers (knowledge is power).
Optimizing a supply chain includes inventory management, cost reduction, localizing suppliers and lots and lots of planning. In most cases a system to manage the inventory is needed, which can be as simple as a spreadsheet, but more commonly some form of Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) tool. When the supply chain is not optimized, bottlenecks can occur that will hinder the flow of product to the end customer / distribution channel. Part shortages can be costly and ultimately reduce revenue. By eliminating bottlenecks and other problems that interfere with the manufacturing process, the supply chain, even if it is more mesh-like than chain-like, will function in a more smooth, timely, and cost-effective manner.
And it’s all connected in weird but important ways, which makes supply chain– or mesh–management interesting, fun, and exasperating.