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Fixing hobbled supply chains with smarter packaging and technology

April 13, 2022
Digital printing now is being used at the case-packing level to add flexibility.

Around the world, many are seeing massive supply chain problems that have products and resources on backorder or out of stock. Recently, the Biden-Harris administration announced a plan to invigorate the American supply chain to revitalize the businesses affected by the pandemic. The proposed initiative aims to strengthen exports, provide $10 billion in (ARM) funds and $70 billion in State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) funds, advance the technology leveraged by both small and large manufacturers, and more.

While this funding will help alleviate some of the supply chain issues the United States is facing, organizations have needed to adapt in order to keep their ventures afloat while maintaining proper employment. The way items are packaged and how people are managed within industrial organizations can drastically offset supply chain issues.

Product packaging and robotics could combat challenges

Basic packaging supplies are part of the holdup when it comes to products being delivered. Consider the case of Ember Technologies and Cardinal Health, which recently partnered to become the world’s first self-refrigerated, cloud-based shipping box to transport temperature-sensitive biologics.

More organizations are optimizing reusable packaging to drive down costs and time, especially in direct-to-consumer deliveries from retailers. Digital printing now is being used at the case-packing level to add flexibility into the packaging process. And robotics have also become a mainstay in warehouses; mobile robots are increasingly being utilized for efficiency purposes, while pick-and-pack solutions use sliding conveyor belts to speed up the packaging processes for direct-to-consumer deliveries and business-to-business e-commerce, which is an emerging trend.

Updated management software and going remote

At two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, more organizations are allowing their employees to work remotely, either full time or on a hybrid schedule. Better management software has become more prevalent due to the newer distribution methods; however, those industries that had an easier time moving to remote working likely had started with automation before the pandemic hit. And with greater cybersecurity threats with employees working from home on unsecured devices, companies can prepare for future disruptions by using sophisticated MRP/ERP/QMS/eDHR software in the cloud, which enables transparency for manufacturers to oversee the quality of the entire packaging process.

3D printing to fill in the gaps

While many groups are updating their software systems to allow more remote work, it can take years for automation to fully transition. Materials and components suppliers routinely work closely with medical-device manufacturers to plan supply-and-inventory needs for the long term, and suppliers are often selected based on their redundancies and contingency planning. Because medical-device regulations and standards demand traceability and change control (and more), these manufacturers plan supply chains many years into the future. While many may have fared well in the current crisis and are now working to close future gaps, there are still some concerns. Medtech manufacturing cannot always transition quickly, so medical companies that have pre-built relationships with contract manufacturers may be in a better position than those with single, validated, in-house manufacturing lines.

3D printing can help fill in those blank spots as automation moves over. As long as safety and quality are maintained, the FDA decided to ease its restrictions while the pandemic is ongoing. When the crisis has officially ended, manufacturers of products that were authorized through Emergency Use Authorization will need to follow regulatory paths for future clearance and approval.

Overall, in order to stay ahead of the curb, the way specialized products are packaged and related software is updated could resolve the supply chain problems that have hindered industries domestically and around the world.

By Steve Everly, group event director with IM Engineering South