4 Paths to Innovation Given the Current Supply Chain Constraints

We often hear companies talk about innovation as a strategy for future growth and expansion. If they have an innovation strategy or practice, it is typically one that runs on the outskirts of its version of operational excellence, or lean manufacturing model, or just-in-time delivery methodology. But what happens when the supply chain is disrupted, when lean suddenly isn’t so lean, and just-in-time delivery becomes undefined delivery?

There are two clear options: address the immediate issue in hopes of returning to normal, or think differently and innovatively about the larger challenge that is likely to occur again.

Companies that are frantic to remove the cog in their machine often look at their issue from a “survival mode” perspective. They work to get the lean-performing machine running as intended – even if it doesn’t solve the problem or future-proof the business from similar events. However, companies that see this kind of disruption as an opportunity to innovate for longer term value move into problem-solving mode. They find new ways to work versus simply getting the old way to work again.


Seeking Breakthroughs, Not Band-Aids 

At a surface level, you’d be hard-pressed to find a leader who wouldn’t want breakthroughs over Band-Aids. But actions speak louder than the best intentions. When the supply chain is broken, too often the focus turns to short-term wins now, not innovative thinking with longer terms wins.

Even the data will say what companies want isn’t necessarily what companies do.

A 2017 worldwide supply chain survey among leaders across multiple industries revealed that 57 percent of firms consider their supply chain to be a competitive advantage enabling the development of their company. They also acknowledge the top 5 technology priorities for Supply Chain are related to data management (data analysis, Internet of Things, cloud computing, information security, predictive analytics) – all signs of desired technological breakthroughs. So what holds companies back? Why do they keep reaching for Band-Aids instead of leaning into innovative pivots, including technology advancements?

It’s simple – breakthroughs are neither fast nor simple. Yet when companies realize the strain on their supply chain likely isn’t unique to them (and the competition isn’t running ahead in the same environment), they can grant themselves permission to step back, think differently, and innovate for future business value over quick fixes for business in the moment.

Four Pathways to Innovation

Creating something new starts with appraising the opportunities that exist. We see four recurring on-ramps to innovation that companies often pursue to find uncommon solutions and create greater value.

1. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) speaks directly to what global survey respondents have already voiced – technology is the future. AI in particular opens new opportunities to gather data and convert it into insights that become actionable. Take for instance mining companies – they are only productive when their conveyor belts are effectively moving mined materials. AI is helping this OEM supplier of cleaning blades transform “belt health” management – the lifeblood for any mining operation – and mitigate downtime. By leveraging remote sensors using AI-powered edge devices, they can monitor abnormal vibrations and alert service teams when they occur. This extends the life of belt cleaning blades while minimizing downtime in hard-to-reach mining locations that otherwise would go offline until repaired. And while this AI solution had nothing to do with selling more blades, it provides greater value through a technology service breakthrough that preserves the life of blades that are already purchased. It’s an example of a supplier providing value outside the confines of the typical supply chain.

2. PREDICTIVE MAINTENANCE works to save costly amounts of time, effort, and resources by anticipating needed actions before disabling events occur. It also helps to better schedule workflow based on uptime and planned maintenance.

We helped a global nonprofit, known for bringing clean water to 100 million people around the world, leverage the power of IoT and AI to see real-time data. Specifically, they wanted to understand the flow of water at any pump and the amount of force that is required to extract it. Those specific insights can predict when a pump is likely to fail so trained individuals can maintenance it before it breaks and keep clean water flowing. That leads to strategic material sourcing through predictive models instead of waiting until parts are needed on short notice.

3. COLLABORATION requires new ways of thinking about growth and going beyond business as usual. The best solutions rarely exist under one roof. Collaborative partners with expertise outside your wheelhouse can be a catalyst to spur new ideas and solutions. Even collaboration with traditional competitors can yield significant breakthroughs (think Apple collaborating with Samsung to provide screens for its iPhones and Apple content to Samsung TVs; or pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech collaborating rather than competing on a covid vaccine).The baseline ROI with collaborative partners will yield efficiencies and cost savings that can’t be realized going it alone. When tackling common supply chain challenges, consider collaboration and the idea of growing the industry versus solely your share of it.

4. INNOVATING THROUGH NEW MATERIALS. Spider silk, carbon concrete, shrilk, and aerogel – these are among the top material discoveries that could transform manufacturing. Being open to new or different materials can help companies rethink and expand an otherwise static supply chain.

For example, a company in plastic injection molding needs to know what alternatives are available to its plastic resin of choice if its availability is threatened (answer – there are more than a dozen). But how might 3D printing also factor into future solutions? How might chemists or chemical companies (e.g., collaborators) be a step ahead of what’s next in viable mold compounds? And how might testing of new materials lead to breakthroughs in intellectual property? A cog in the supply chain is an opportunity to rethink materials, how and where they are sourced, and what might become a worthy alternative to accelerate your company forward by adding new links to the supply chain.

Unlocking Potential

Today’s leaders, including those in supply chain management, acknowledge that technology is the future. They know new product innovations and intellectual properties will separate leading businesses from the pack, both in strategic product development and diversifying the supply chain.

To unlock the potential that awaits, action is required.

As collaborators and connectors, Twisthink facilitates that crucial first step in unlocking innovative thinking and action. With 90-minute or half-day workshops, our team brings new perspectives to recurring challenges by helping companies push through initial ideas. When companies reach breakthrough and disruptive thinking, it reinvigorates their team for critical, problem-solving pursuits. It is the needed push and desired momentum companies need to get unstuck and find their unique pathway to innovation.

As a Principal Design Strategist, Lauren helps lead our clients on a journey to create and deliver new value, growth, and positive transformation. Her areas of expertise include connecting the dots between consumer needs, strategic objectives, and innovative ideas to create an actionable vision that can be quickly explored and iterated.

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