Advancements in technology coupled with the U.S. economic rebound have created an environment in the U.S. manufacturing sector where many companies are investing in capital equipment and new software at unprecedented rates. According to the Association for Manufacturing Technology, 2012 was the best year for U.S. manufacturing technology orders since 1996. Also, we have entered an era where, for the first time, many of the capital investments that were previously considered out of reach for small and middle-market manufacturers have now become economically feasible.

If the time is right for U.S. manufacturers of all sizes to consider modernizing their operations, it is important to first look at modernizing their supply chain and logistics operations in order to optimize potential investments. Manufacturers must think holistically about their business before making these decisions, and this includes looking at their supply chain and distribution models and the impacts of these investments on their operations.

To begin, manufacturers should ask themselves how making capital investments—whether updating equipment, manufacturing processes, software solutions, or even supply chain functions—will impact their inventory, customer demand, sourcing strategy and distribution models. Efforts to modernize manufacturing through initiatives such as automation, the integration of cloud-based technologies, the incorporation of additive manufacturing and even the utilization of data management tools all can have an impact on a manufacturer’s overall supply chain operations. Below are several aspects of modernizing that manufacturers need to know to prepare for the future.

Automation and Robotics

While the manufacturing sector—specifically the U.S. automotive, industrial and food manufacturing industries—has focused on automation and robotics for decades, advancements in technology have made new automated and robotic resources available to many small and mid-market manufacturers for the first time. Adopting those solutions can position companies for increased efficiency, production speeds and reduced costs. However, it is important to evaluate whether inbound and outbound supply chains can keep pace with the improvements.

A few questions manufacturers should be asking themselves before embarking on automation updates:

  • Can inbound raw materials and parts maintain proper inventory levels, buffers, reorder points and lead times associated with automated production?
  • Can existing freight and distribution assets keep up with this production as well?
  • If new automated solutions require maintenance, does a company’s existing service model allow for quick repair, or will companies be looking at extended downtimes?

By partnering with logistics providers with access to multiple modes of transportation and large distribution networks, manufacturers can more easily adjust to the increased supply chain demands and output resulting from the implementation of automated processes. Logistics providers can provide access to a network of field-stocking locations to support technicians and assist with faster maintenance or service of automated equipment.