When the supply chain doesn’t work, products get delivered late or not at all. It’s inconvenient if it’s that desk ordered two months ago. It can be deadly if the product is a ready source of light for Ugandan mothers giving birth in darkness.
During the past three years, a variety of factors have rocked the global supply chain, which made it unpredictable to find electronic parts. As a result, manufacturing companies couldn’t forecast when to actually build their products due to so much flux in part availability and price variation. This makes it challenging for manufacturers to know the true cost of how much it takes to create their product.
Supply Chain Challenges
We Care Solar is a California-based nonprofit that developed an off-grid solar electric system. The Solar Suitcase is used in over 7,000 health centers worldwide. We Care Solar ran into problems when they couldn’t buy the power monitoring integrated circuit (IC) that manages solar charging. Their motherboard has 400 parts designed around that central component, which left them with difficult choices to not ship their life-saving product or redesign the motherboard with a different IC that was available. As a small non-profit, they didn’t have the funds to redesign the product.
The previous distributor of the ICs didn’t have the parts for another year. We Care Solar’s contract manufacturer was holding 95% of the inventory to build the product. While they were waiting to build the batch, We Care Solar was paying for the cost of storing that inventory. The pressure kept increasing. We Care Solar’s employees in Africa were ready to distribute and install Solar Suitcases. Without the ICs to complete the motherboard, the product wouldn’t have been manufactured. As a result, those remote employees wouldn’t have been able to do their jobs.
Tapping into a Network of Brokers
We Care Solar asked Zebulon Solutions to help find the ICs. Teresa Neeley, Supply Chain Manager at Zebulon Solutions, tapped into her network of brokers. She found a Florida-based company that procured the ICs from a factory in Shanghai. We Care Solar ordered 2,000 parts, and Teresa guided them through the testing process. The company in Florida ran electrical tests to ensure that the parts weren’t damaged in storage, that they performed well, and they weren’t counterfeit.
“You can find 20 brokers online but it’s the Wild West. They can easily take your money and tie it up without getting the part on time. We asked Teresa if she could get the part. Zebulon Solutions has relationships with brokers they have worked with over the years,” said Brent Moellenberg, Director of Engineering at We Care Solar.
Over the course of a year, Teresa found other parts for We Care Solar including resistors, transistors and diodes. Since Zebulon Solutions had assisted We Care Solar with the suitcase design, they understood it and could help find alternate parts. By overcoming supply chain challenges, Zebulon Solutions empowered We Care Solar to do what they do best—manufacture a source of light for mothers and babies most in need.
“Estimates are that 300,000 clinics in sub-Saharan Africa lack reliable power, so the need is effectively endless. We have funders willing to support our work to light many of these clinics, but we lack a few key parts necessary to make the Solar Suitcases–it may come down to one little integrated circuit that limited finishing suitcases for an entire shipment. Zebulon Solutions helped us identify an alternate part, and we were able to get them out. Even in 2020, in the worst part of COVID, we still shipped 900 suitcases. Those were maternal clinics that got light that wouldn’t have had it. Zebulon Solutions’ contribution definitely saved lives,” said Moellenberg.