I used to work in a flat glass factory.
The flat glass factory I worked at used float technology. It starts with a furnace that melts raw materials such as silica (sand), soda ash, dolomite, and limestone. Molten glass flows from the furnace to a tin bath, a chamber of molten tin, in which the liquid glass from the furnace floats on the molten tin to produce an almost flawless sheet of flat glass.
Float glass factories run continuously. Shutting down is out of the question because it risks damaging the furnace and tin bath which would result in lengthy cleaning and expensive rebuilding.
Re-starting a float glass facility is likewise very expensive. Restoring the flow of float glass requires tedious re-calibration operations and the difficult pulling of the liquid glass from furnace to tin bath.
I know because I participated in one such operational re-start. It was hot, time-consuming, and it cost the company I worked for a lot of money.
The economics of keeping a float glass hot and running outweighs any temporary shutdown regardless of whatever the demand for glass is. Unless it’s a permanent shutdown, flat glass companies will keep their float glass plants running no matter what.
Float glass plants typically produce a minimum of 450 tons of sheet glass a day. Glass companies, however, believe there is enough demand to absorb the daily unstoppable production. Never mind that glass demand fluctuates with the highs and lows of the construction and automotive industries.
Unstoppable production is a reality in several industries. Steel manufacturers have blast furnaces that cannot be shut down. Petroleum corporations cannot outright stop the output of oil wells. Farmers cannot reschedule harvests.
We are taught that the purpose of supply chain management is to fulfil demand. How does one then balance the management of unstoppable production with the swings of customer demand?
Unstoppable manufacturing dictates the need for efficiency. Ongoing production operations means ongoing supply of materials, supplies, and labour. There has to be enough storage space, materials handling, and transport to handle the continuous manufacture of products. At the same time, enterprise executives need to ensure that there is demand for what is continually produced. Sales and marketing managers would strive to find buyers or markets to sell whatever is made.
Continuous production, however, should not be the centre of attention. Selling products to keep manufacturing operations efficiently running should not be the sole purpose of supply chain professionals.
Customers and what they want should always be the focus. There should be a balance between supply and demand in which the supply chain operations aim to meet customer expectations at the same time reap the benefits of such for the enterprise’s stakeholders.
Flat glass companies market a variety of products. They sell custom-cut window glass for buildings. They produce coated glass window panes that insulate homes from the heat of the sun and thick glass sheets for furniture tables. They sell glass for car and truck windshields. They also sell glass that are used for solar panels and photoelectric cells. The variety of products sums up to a high demand which justifies the continuous production of flat glass.
Agricultural enterprises also allocate harvests in a variety of ways. Fruit companies sell outright to wholesalers and supermarkets and at the same time export to other countries. They also sell to fruit processing enterprises which manufacture canned and preserved items.
Supply chain engineers (SCE’s) can help unstoppable producing enterprises by focusing attention on distribution and inventories. They can help managers determine how much of what product to make, how and where to spread the items, and how much raw and packaging materials to buy and store.
Oil companies, for instance, invest in storage tanks and lease super-tanker vessels to temporarily store production when demand is low. The companies would dispatch the super-tankers to position their stock near to buyers who would be ready to purchase them when demand recovers.
SCE’s can also help find out what kind of product to make and keep. For example, SCE’s can determine how much work-in-process inventories to make instead of finished items. Steel and metals manufacturers produce heavy rolled-up coils and ingots which they later convert to items such as bars, parts, sheets, plates, and pipes. With the help of SCE’s, manufacturers can set inventory policies for work-in-process products and devise customised make-only-when-needed systems for finished items.
Manufacturing is not a quick on-and-off kind of operation. There is a cost when production facilities halt and re-start. As much as possible, production lines should operate continuously, for efficiency’s sake.
Efficient production, however, is not the end-goal of supply chain professionals. Fulfilling customer demand is. An unstoppable production process exists because of the confidence an enterprise has in selling all of what it would make. Balancing the flow of product from vendors to manufacturing to logistics to customers should always focus on delivering to customer expectations and in terms of what enterprise stakeholders seek in terms of their organisation’s strategic mission and goals.
An enterprise can make plenty, deliver plenty, and profit from plenty, with the help of supply chain engineering expertise.