Working in the supply chain – something for almost everyone

When I started working in the supply chain, way back in 1982, I didn’t realize it was actually the supply chain! I thought I was simply entering the family manufacturing business. As long as I was focused on the happenings inside our “four walls”, I remained unaware of the role I was actually playing in the supply chain. Eventually it hit me – my company is one of many thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) that comprise this overarching industry we call the supply chain.

Companies directly involved in the transport of materials are more readily seen as supply chain participants. Transoceanic shipping, railroads, trucking companies, and the huge entities that move smaller packages all fit the profile. But my company makes industrial wheels, casters, and non-powered in-plant carts and trailers. Our products find their way to warehouses, factories, and distribution centers where they engage in the movement of materials inside large buildings. All of those spaces are part of the supply chain.

In our company, we have engineers who design the products we make, and frequently address special requirements by designing custom products. We also do extensive testing of wheels and casters. This involves operating different types of testing equipment, plotting results on graphs, and analyzing results to learn more about the products themselves. Design and testing rely on creativity as well as solid technical knowledge.

Others purchase materials for our products. It may sound simple, but getting the right materials in the correct quantities when they are needed can be a real puzzle. There are many material requirements and specifications. Our warehouse space is limited, so buying in vast quantities is not a possibility. Besides, that ties up too much cash. But we can’t allow ourselves to run out of anything, either. Hence, the purchasing challenge. Have enough of everything we need on hand, but not too much.

Our production departments use the materials to make our products. There are literally thousands of different parts, and then many different types of machinery used in the manufacturing processes. The science of welding and the technology of turning parts on lathes make every day interesting. There are always new developments in cutting tools to achieve maximum productivity with minimum tooling cost. Welding robots are also fascinating, and they demand very consistent parts to work properly. Finding or developing skilled workers is the latest hurdle in the production world.

Machinery and equipment looks to maintenance to keep it up and running. Just like the cars most of us use to get to and from work, we need our machines to run when we need them. Maintenance must be able to react quickly to the unexpected and also follow a strict system of preventive activities to minimize the unexpected.

Virtually every company has salespeople. We have some “inside” who work in the office every day. There are others, “outside” salespeople, who travel considerably. All of them are product experts, and are adept at listening to or observing pain points and then proposing solutions to resolve the pain. To be successful in sales, one must be a skilled communicator and a problem solver.

Production control in our company is like running a three-ring circus. Matching customer desires with production capabilities is an endless challenge. They must juggle shifting requests and expedites with production resources and available materials. Our production workers are human, and sometimes call in sick or take vacation. Production control must make adjustments for this, too.

For those who love to crunch numbers, our company has a financial component. It engages virtually every aspect of our business. From payables to receivables, from payroll to month end closeout, our financial team must stay on top of all the numbers.

Every company, and practically every household these days, has technology. We’ve come from days when some of our office staff shared a computer to the point where most now engage two or three screens simultaneously. Computers have become the lifeblood of business, and frequently are backed up with battery power and/or generators so they keep functioning even when the electricity isn’t. There are daily computer glitches, printer problems, and software issues. We call this function “information technology.” Whatever it might be called, it is vital.

Keeping our company name in front of prospective customers, and keeping tabs on the shifting demands of those customers by providing new products, belong to marketing. There is a website to maintain, blogs to oversee, printed materials to keep fresh, and industry trends to follow.

Today I find myself in management, responsible for everything that happens within our company. Through my career I have filled several of the positions described previously, and learned invaluable lessons along the way. I know we all have to work as a team to achieve success. I know that business is about people, and we must treasure them and their potential. I know that people skills are at least as important as technical skills, and that both are critical for success. And I know that no one should be bored working in the supply chain – there is seemingly endless variety in tasks and opportunities.

The supply chain is much bigger than most people imagine. Many who work in the supply chain don’t recognize it. There are innumerable types of jobs in the supply chain. Without us, not much happens commercially. In the case of my company, we make things that most people never notice. But without wheels and casters, much of the supply chain skids to a halt. In many ways, the supply chain is practically endless. So are the opportunities and challenges.

Dave Lippert