A strained supply chain has likely delayed the arrival of something in your life. That could be a new front door for your home or office, a critical part for your company’s products, or the peach juice in your hibiscus refresher. Supply chain proved to be the ultimate grinch: Kraft Heinz encouraged people not to make Christmas cheesecake this year, due to a cream cheese shortage.
Some supply-chain problems are pandemic-related, which adds a layer of complexity beyond anyone’s control. But there’s plenty about supply-chain management (or SCM) that you can control and change, no matter your industry or company size.
What is the supply chain?
The phrase “supply chain” describes the process of making raw materials into sellable goods. As the name implies, it tracks the chain of supplies, from sourcing raw materials to shipping materials to a factory, to working through the logistics of delivering finished items into the hands of customers.
Whether your supply chain has two steps or 2,000, here are a few ways Airtable helps keep things running smoothly.
Tips for avoiding bottlenecks
For manufacturing operations, the list of supply chain and logistics issues has never been longer.
Sharmila Datta, COO at New York-based ecommerce company Uncute, ticks off just a few global supply chain factors affecting her company’s ability to manufacture goods. Those include: COVID surges in India and China; truck driver shortages; Chinese government-mandated factory shutdowns for power rationing; shipping container shortages; sky-high raw materials costs and ocean freight rates; scheduling hangups with shipping vessels.
“The ocean has become a parking lot,” Datta says. “Supply chain has never been more difficult than it is now.”
But Datta, who has run operations and logistics for chemical companies, has a few tricks for avoiding bottlenecks.
The ocean has become a parking lot. Supply chain has never been more difficult than it is now.
Give people the visibility they need at the right time.
Uncute once used Excel spreadsheets to run its business but now tracks inventory and manages daily tasks in two Airtable bases. Their teams use an Airtable formula to calculate the profitability of manufacturing each item.
The company created specific views for certain types of employees—those involved in product scoping and creation, for example. They built other views for external suppliers, warehouse partners, and production facilities.
“Some people can see manufacturing batches and quantity levels, others can see a status or whether we’ve done a quality check,” Datta says of Airtable. “The real-time collaboration is an amazing feature.”
Plan ahead, then plan further ahead.
Datta says she started scoping raw materials and nailing down details of holiday 2021 production last spring. It’s the furthest in advance she’s ever worked, and she expects to plan ahead even earlier in coming years.
For forecasting and advanced planning in Airtable, Datta likes a calendar view, which lets you see records in your base in a calendar format. Other views come in handy for managing projects with many dependencies, such as a Timeline view or a Gantt view, which both let you visualize overlapping deadlines.
Learn more about what’s new in views
Stay in close communication with suppliers.
Keeping in close touch with suppliers is a good rule for companies of all sizes, says Professor Ananth Iyer, the Susan Bulkeley Butler Chair in Operations Management at Purdue University and a frequent commentator on all things supply chain. Was there a hurricane? Or a ship stuck in the Suez Canal? Those factors are outside a company’s control.
But frequent, even daily, communications with suppliers about obstacles they’re facing can help you anticipate risks and delays. “Do you know what’s going on with your suppliers on a real-time basis? This will help you plan the next steps,” he says.
Forecast future buying habits by looking at the past.
In Datta’s case, an Airtable integration with Quickbooks Commerce gives her team a snapshot of Uncute’s past years’ orders in one base. That information helps Datta forecast quantities and customer demand for busy months like the holidays.
To get started building your own forecasting tool, you’d likely start with a base containing at least two tables—one with past sales data and one for forecasted data—plus a formula that links them. Need help with the formula? Check out our guides to basic calculations or more advanced calculations in the formula field.
In addition to Uncute customer sales data, Datta pulls in past order data from Uncute’s dozens of retail partners around the country, requesting early estimates of their needs. Did purchases spike in the middle of a certain month? Were they tied to broader trends in shopping or fashion? She builds as much of this info as possible into her forecast.
Manage all your data in one place.
Before they discovered Airtable, the team at New York-based apparel startup CreateMe was managing order information with some combination of Google Drive, Google Sheets, Excel, Slack, and email.
The only problem? It was nearly impossible to track down details when they needed them. “It wasn't obvious where the information might be since it might have been shared via email or Slack or just uploaded to Google Drive,” says CreateMe’s Production & Planning Manager Megan Yuen.
Now they run production and inventory for their Brooklyn knitwear factory using Airtable, tracking garments through each stage using the Status field. They use a Kanban view for a more visual look at their production cycle, and the Page Designer app lets them print tickets that travel with garments as they move through the factory.
“Now, we have a centralized location where all the pertinent information lives and everyone knows how to use it,” says Yuen. “Less stress across the board means a more highly functioning team because they can deal with the problems at hand, not worry about where to find the information they need.”
Perhaps you work in a company where supply chain management is a dream. There are no logistical snarls, and all the goods you need are matched beautifully with customer demands. If so, this would make your company one of a lucky few. McKinsey surveyed supply-chain executives and found that more than 70% experienced production, distribution, or supplier trouble in 2020 (and a year later, only 2% of companies have deep visibility into their supply chains).