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Manufacturers Share Their Seriously Scary Supply Chain Stories

Oct. 31, 2023
These aren’t your typical campfire horror tales.

Cobwebs, eye of newt, bat wings… wait, those are the ingredients for a witches’ brew; the ingredients that came together to cook up these supply chain scares are a bit different.

Manufacturers have faced some nightmarish scenarios in recent years. In the spirit of Halloween, IndustryWeek invited manufacturers to share these terrifying tales.

Check out the following frightening supply chain challenges and how the companies responded.

Woven Metal Products: The Perfect Storm Strikes

Woven Metal Products is a third-generation fabricator that serves a number of sectors, including oil and gas, renewable energy and refining. It operates from 125,000 square feet of shop space in Alvin, Texas.

“We’ve doubled in size over the last 10 years and have goals to do that again,” says President and CEO Russell Hillenburg.

In 2021 WMP was working on a large project for a client’s hydrotreater process internals. The company purchased 150 tons of 321 stainless steel plate ranging in thickness from 3/16 inches to 1 inch for the project.

“We ended up purchasing all the raw material from this one supplier and did receive a confirmation back that the order had been received and entered,” says WMP VP of Operations David Quinn.

However, three days later, WMP learned that the mill would be unable to fulfill the original order. It was a huge blow.

The company had been working on the design and engineering of this project for almost two years, so “to go in and try to make any changes … it was not an option. It would have been another two-year delay,” Quinn says.

Several other circumstances exacerbated the already dire situation.

First, and perhaps most obviously – the pandemic struck. Raw materials dried up. “Making steel is like baking a cake. You need all the raw materials,” says Quinn. “They stopped digging [for minerals], basically. It came up to about mid 2020 that all the raw materials had been consumed, so there was no more raw material to manufacture any new steel.”

If the material shortage wasn’t enough, “we're dealing with alloys that aren't just stocked every day,” Hillenburg says. “It’s not a standard piece of quarter-inch carbon steel where you go out to 10 vendors and they’re going to have some … it’s a niche type product.”

Given these challenges, WMP faced a seemingly impossible dilemma, but the team didn’t give up.

“Our customer relies on us to deliver, regardless of the circumstances of others,” Quinn says. With no other option, the procurement team began searching the market, reaching out to every supplier in their database of 30 years.

“It got to where we got on Google and started establishing relationships with new suppliers, which actually are suppliers we still have today,” Quinn says.

Despite facing the conundrum, WMP prevailed and made the deadlines it promised on day one.

“The mill was six months late when they finally were able to produce the material. But in that time, we were able to get enough material to start the project, keep the project,” Quinn says. “Not only did we still commit to the order that had been delayed, but we …  double purchased about 50% of the material, all because we couldn't let the customer down.”

Hillenburg attributes much of the team’s success to its desire to look after the entire value chain, as well as the company’s key values: reliable quality, partnership attitude and attention to detail.

“It was not only a team effort among Woven Metal Projects’ team,” but the client and vendor relationships were also very valuable, Hillenburg says.

“At the end of the day, we made every delivery on time, every inspection on time, and there was no impact to the final delivery to our customer’s customer,” Quinn says. “The final end user had no idea of the struggles we had.”

TekniPlex Healthcare:  Pandemic Pandemonium

When your products save lives, the need for consistent manufacturing is paramount. But what happens when a worldwide pandemic disrupts the usual cadence? TekniPlex Healthcare can tell you. The manufacturer faced the challenge of providing for its customers in rapidly changing circumstances.

TekniPlex’s healthcare division produces medical packaging and devices like pharma blister films and tubing solutions. “We use our material science solutions to improve patient outcomes, save lives,” says CEO Chris Qualters.

COVID created pandemonium in the medical-device supply chain as customers’ needs evolved rapidly.  For example, one proposed solution to protect healthcare workers treating COVID patients was to move the treatment machinery outside the patient’s room and into the hallway. Clinicians could effectively monitor and treat patients from a further distance, resulting in less contact with the patient and improving safety.

However, for this to work, the tubing used on these critical devices needed to be extended significantly. For TekniPlex, this meant creating tubing that was four to five times longer. This wasn’t as simple as it sounds.

“You think, ‘Oh, well just run the length longer, right?’ Qualters says. “What you’re changing is the mechanical properties of the tubing … you have to worry about kink resistance so the fluid flow is correct and the patient is still getting treated correctly.”

Under an immense time constraint, TekniPlex stepped up to the challenge.

“We were able to go from paper design, to a concept, to a manufacturing process, to validation samples, to in front of our customer in 10 days,” a process that would usually take weeks to months, Qualters says. “In the medical industry where patient safety is No. 1, you tend not to want to do that … but because of our global network of engineers, both on the design side and on the process side, we were able to engage with our customer and come up with a solution.”

The expedited development of this product allowed patients to get the medical care they needed while protecting clinicians, he says.

TRUMPF: No Time to Wait

TRUMPF Inc., which primarily manufactures industrial lasers and fabrication machinery, has not been immune to the volatile global supply chain conditions industry has faced in recent years. One point of concern has been extended wait times, especially when transporting by sea.

In fall 2022, the company was “struggling with the vessels that were coming out of Germany going into the Port of New York and New Jersey,” says Head of Logistics Michelle Brown.

Ships were waiting in ports for weeks to be loaded and unloaded. TRUMPF needed a faster solution for one particular shipment carrying 49 machines, including chillers, press brakes and other fabricating machinery.

The company’s fix: a charter vessel.

“Previous to shipping these machines, I was responsible at a different company that heavily utilized charter vessels for their main source of movement of the goods,” Brown says. “That’s really where the idea came from.”

TRUMPF typically ships its products on larger container vessels. Chartering a smaller vessel through a logistics company is a more specialized process, one that allows greater control of the boat’s movements, says Brown. However, this process was new to the company, so it needed to assess the financial viability of the idea.

“We really had to conduct a full analysis of what we would be able to put on that boat before we even started to go down the booking process,” Brown says.

After all factors were considered, the company decided to go ahead with the idea, and the products were loaded onto a charter vessel in the Port of Hamburg, Germany.

Because the boat was smaller in size, it didn’t have to enter at one of the larger terminals, significantly cutting down on wait and transit times.

“I think in total it took 15 days or 14 days to get across the water, where the commercial steam shipping lines were taking up to 20, 25 days,” Brown says.

Brown’s approach helped to expedite delivery to the ship’s destination. “We were able to help satisfy our customers, and our customers really matter most to us,” she says.

About the Author

Anna Smith | News Editor

News Editor

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-m-smith/ 

Bio: Anna Smith joined IndustryWeek in 2021. She handles IW’s daily newsletters and breaking news of interest to the manufacturing industry. Anna was previously an editorial assistant at New Equipment DigestMaterial Handling & Logistics and other publications.

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