By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
Supply chains are composed of thousands of large and small contracts that have a lifetime of a year to 10 years. But the supply chain of goods flowing across the world is broken as a result of the novel coronavirus and the illness it causes. As a result, the transportation of people and goods that emerged following WWII has been stopped, some of it for good.
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The globalization that existed before 2020 will not return in our lifetime or maybe never. Do you remember Northwest Airlines, Trans World Airlines (TWA), Eastern Airlines or Pan American World Airways (Pan Am)? They were once a major part of the global supply chain. Not one of those airlines exists today.
The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Affected All Global Supply Chains
The novel coronavirus is affecting all global supply chains, retail business and military operations from small logistics warehouse to the enormous, unseen supply chains that connected business operations. There is no noted expert or political leader who can solve the problem.
For instance, the raw food supply chain has interrupted the flow of everything from milk, eggs, red meat and poultry, produce, and fresh-caught salmon from Alaska.
Food waste seems on the rise from farms and shippers who had contracts to transport all kinds of fresh food items to restaurants and grocery stores. Pork producers in the U.S. and Canada face immediate problems due to slaughterhouse workers coming down with COVID-19.
As a result, they have nowhere to ship their pork products. “Some have reverted to culling or aborting as their pig houses would otherwise get too full,” according to the trade publication Pig Progress.
How do you handle your fresh food and canned foods at home now? Are you throwing away less trash than you did before this pandemic shut down stores and the transportation of goods? Have you tried to return a product to the grocery store during this pandemic?
Have you come across instructions in stores not to touch produce or other unwrapped items? If you do, do you feel you own it? The store will not take the item back. So even the reverse logistics part of the whole supply chain is broken.
The Pandemic Has Spawned New Ways to Use Technology
While food transportation and storage have declined significantly, there’s been a rise in medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) delivered to homes or to medical facilities by drones or by helicopter.
Another technological initiative that this pandemic has spawned is the use of remote observation of manufacturing operations and security. Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) — what we used to call smart software — are being used in restricted areas such as COVID-19 hospital quarantine rooms. But this technology is not the end of this story.
As happens following many disasters, the initial technology is not the gold mine of ideas. Before this pandemic drove many workers from factories, they performed operations and collected data to file reports. This continuous observation, when done properly, provided managers with valuable information.
But what if all of that data could be captured 24/7/365 by a robot and AI software? With proper data analytics capturing and sorting that data, management just might be able to foresee and correct a machine failure before it happens. Such a system of contact data collection and machine monitoring could replace humans.
Innovation improves a business, but it also takes away human jobs. The pandemic could see additional manual labor jobs disappear, but new technology-based jobs emerge. The result could also be a bridge to prevent another global supply chain breakdown.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.
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